Oliver Wins IEEE Florida Outstanding STEM Teacher of the Year


Photo I. Hanewicz

Biology teacher Tiffany Oliver holds out a bowl of names so Bemlak Ambaye (’17) can pick her future “husband”.

Isabel Hanewicz, RHStoday Editor-in-Chief

Biology teacher Tiffany Oliver loathes notes. That’s not to say her students don’t take them- of course, like any other class, there are times when notes are necessary- but a lecture class isn’t the kind of classroom Oliver strives to have.

Each day, each night, Oliver meticulously plans the day’s lessons. Her class, HL Biology, is the highest level of biology offered at Robinson and covers more depth and breadth than the other upperclassmen biology courses, SL Biology and AP Biology.

Despite the sheer amount of content, Oliver strives to keep every class entertaining. After doing an osmosis lab with eggs, students had an egg-toss contest. To remember genetics, they married each other. When they learned about organisms, they went across the street to collect and examine samples of pond water for microorganisms.

As a teacher, Oliver says it is easy to go months, years without recognition for what you’re doing. That sometimes, the work one puts into a lesson, a class, goes unnoticed.

Last Friday wasn’t one of those times. With her picture on the big screen behind her, Oliver was recognized as one of the three IEEE Outstanding STEM Teacher of the Year for the state of Florida.

“It’s special to me because I know how much work I put into [teaching] and it’s nice sometimes to be recognized for that,” Oliver said. “The truth is most teachers are doing amazing jobs and you can go for years and years doing an amazing job and no one knows it except you yourself… It’s nice every once and a while when somebody says ‘Hey, that’s a really great job.'”

To Oliver’s students, the award wasn’t much of a surprise. From the first day students walk into room 140, they notice the little things that add up to the whole picture: her research job at USF, her love for marine biology, specifically echinoderms, which she studies. Spell echinoderm right on the first test, and she’ll add a point of extra credit.

“When you’re in Mrs. Oliver’s class, her enthusiasm for the subject is contagious,” said Katie Porter (’16), a second-year student in Oliver’s class. “Being in her class has given me a greater appreciation of biology in everyday life because she always uses real-life examples we can relate to.”

And to understand Oliver’s classes, one really has to step into one. Oliver is a humble person, evident by the fact that she doesn’t like talking about herself.

Yes, she was happy to be recognized, but talk to her about the award, and soon enough, the conversation will turn back to her students and biology. For one of Robinson’s more awarded teachers- she was the 2015 Teacher of the Year- she doesn’t really brag.

She’d much rather discuss something about biology, because even after all these years, she still enjoys learning more and more about the subject.

After all, she’ll say, biology is the study of life. Everyone needs a little biology.

She just comes up with a way to make her students understand that.

“I really work hard every day to empower students to be successful,” she said. “I think of all these different ways I can teach and come at concepts from a way that maybe no other teacher has thought about before.”

Oliver didn’t always think she was going to be a teacher- when she took her first teaching position at Robinson, she assumed it would be a one year gig and that she’d go back to research full-time.

Now years later, even though there’s been times she’s contemplated leaving, she’s confident she’s found where she belongs. Call it a happy coincidence.

“I love Robinson…I love the atmosphere here,” she said. “Every once in a while I’ve considered leaving teaching to go into another, different aspect of education, but because I love connecting with students and I love sharing my passion of biology with students, this is what I choose to stay and do.”