By JohnCarl McGrady
Dr. Jedidiyah “Jed” Williams has become the first teacher in the history of Nantucket High School (NHS) to take home the Presidential Award for Mathematics and Science Teaching (PEAMST). Williams, who received his doctorate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, now teaches in the NHS Math and Science departments and was named as an awardee in August of 2020.
The PEAMST, developed to support STEM education, is given once a year to two teachers in each state, as well as Puerto Rico, D.C, Department of Defense Schools, and U.S territories as a whole, and is touted on its website as “the highest honor bestowed by the United States government specifically for K-12 science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or computer science teaching.” Williams has taught in all of these subject areas in his time at NHS, as well as teaching vocational courses.
“I’m really so happy to be able to bring the Presidential Award to our school,” Williams said.
While this is his first time winning this particular award, Williams is no stranger to national attention or winning high-level recognition from the government. A robotics expert, Williams spent two years working with Lockheed Martin on the DARPA robotics challenge, which, according to its website, aims to “develop human supervised ground robots capable of executing complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments.” In addition, in 2017, Williams was a finalist in the NASA Space Robotics Challenge, which he describes as aiming to “develop control software for a hypothetical robot arm on Mars.”
Looking back on the challenge, Williams says “it was a lot of fun…we were the only high school team in the top twenty.” However, despite his success in the world of robotics, Williams wants to be a teacher more than anything, a passion that likely contributed in large part to winning the PEAMST award last spring.
“I had those job offers,” Williams admits, in reference to working for robotics companies. “The year I graduated, I got a lot of emails about jobs, but I chose teaching…I had already decided to be a teacher.”
Williams wants to be a teacher because “I had so many wonderful teachers, and I got to see what they did, and what they did was talk about their subjects all day, and share these incredible insights into what we know, and that just seemed really attractive, to talk about physics all day, for example.”
He has a tendency to wax poetic about education, explaining that he has “these feelings, I don’t know how to describe them, these romantic notions about the importance of education. Yeah, I mean, education is just so much more important than having a tech job.”
Williams’ love for teaching spills into the way he talks about his students, gushing about their research projects, and saying that his favorite class to teach is any class where “the students are engaged and it’s clear that they’re getting something out of the class.” Williams is excited to have won the PEAMST, and has the self-confidence to admit that it was an impressive accomplishment speaking to his love for and dedication to teaching, but he is plain that despite his intelligence and his awards, what draws him to teaching isn’t some kind of braggadocious motive, but rather a love for the craft of teaching, and a desire to impart knowledge to kids, and help them realize their own passions and talents.
While he loves to talk about teaching, Williams readily partakes in any conversational topic thrown his way, from Elon Musk’s experimental brain-reading chip—“the technology doesn’t exist…it’s so hard to talk about hypothetically”—to data security—“we really need to get ethical before we get technical…there are huge problems with data science and A.I that need to be taken care of before we get too far. I think you can get a degree in Data Science Ethics now, it’s super important.”
Williams describes his teaching philosophy as “simple,” saying he wants to use “the bare minimum,” of technology, despite his background in the field, and that because of this, the transition to virtual learning has been especially difficult for him. However, he also emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary education, because “it’s critical…you can’t develop schema, ways of thinking about things, without context. It’s crucial.” This emphasis on interdisciplinary education makes sense given Williams’ background, and his teaching history spanning three educational departments at NHS.
Going forward, Williams hopes to keep teaching passionate kids who love to learn. He wants to impart his knowledge to many students in the future.