University of South Florida

College of Education

Tampa | St. Petersburg | Sarasota-Manatee


Doctoral student selected as Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow

Selene Willis Headshot

Selene Willis | Photo by Matthew Ray Media, LLC

University of South Florida (USF) doctoral student Selene Willis was selected as a 2021-2022 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow, a competitive fellowship awarded to a select number of K-12 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teachers across the country.

This August, Willis and 17 other fellows will embark on an 11-month journey in Washington, D.C., where they will serve in federal agencies or U.S. congressional offices that are engaged in the STEM field at a national level. Fellows will have the opportunity to apply their knowledge and classroom experience to national education initiatives and return home with the readiness to contribute more significantly to the field.

“I’m excited and also shocked,” Willis, a doctoral student in USF’s Science Education program said. “I talked to (a previous) fellow who explained the caliber of individuals who get selected for the fellowship, so I feel immense gratitude. This is also validation for the work that I’ve been doing as a teacher.”

Willis will complete her fellowship with NASA and says she aims to bring her researcher’s lens, gain fresh perspectives and “soak-in information like a sponge.”

“I want to learn as much as I can through the eyes of NASA,” Willis said. “My school has a strong (STEM) program, but I really want to learn about what I can do to make it better, especially from the perspective of innovation and equity in the classroom.”

Willis is a fifth-grade science educator at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg, Fla. She began her doctoral studies at USF in 2015 and has been involved in various projects since.

In 2018, she became a graduate research assistant for Bulls Engineering Youth Experience (EYE) Pride, an NSF-funded robotics summer camp that promotes STEM and mentors underrepresented students in the community using culturally responsive practices. She also leads a workshop titled, “Teaching for Social Justice: Curriculum Design for Student Agency” through the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Shorecrest Preparatory School.

With research interests focused on equity and curriculum development, Willis says she is passionate about placing social justice at the forefront of STEM courses. This summer she plans to defend her dissertation, which explores the need to empower science teachers to create justice-centered science curricula.

“There is a misconception that STEM isn’t a place where you can talk about social justice, and I disagree,” Willis said. “So, one of the things that I mentioned during the fellowship application process was, ‘How can teachers build more of that kind of curriculum? How can I help create a space where science and social justice work together?’”

Willis says her studies at USF have enabled her to build lifelong relationships and take on the role of a researcher in her classroom. Her mentors include Vonzell Agosto, PhD, Deirdre Cobb-Roberts, PhD and Distinguished University Professor Dana Zeidler, PhD—three professors, she shared, who have guided her towards a path of success.

“Sometimes when you’re in the classroom, you only focus on what you’re teaching that day, and how you’re going to do it,” Willis said. “However, working towards my doctorate has allowed me to be both researcher and practitioner as I learn from scholars that will inform the future of teaching. My experiences at USF have truly given me broader perspectives.”

Return to article listing

About the USF College of Education:

As the home for more than 2,200 students and 130 faculty members across three campuses, the University of South Florida College of Education offers state-of-the-art teacher training and collegial graduate studies designed to empower educational leaders. Our college is nationally accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), and our educator preparation programs are fully approved by the Florida Department of Education.