Two UNK graduates, one presidential award, many young students’ lives changed forever

Posted: October 19, 2023 8:00:00 AM CDT

Chelle Gillan and Judy Williams at Central City Public Schools

Chelle Gillan and Judy Williams “are like two peas in a pod,” according to Williams. 
 
Of course, the two biology enthusiasts would describe their friendship as a plant.  
 
Beyond their close friendship and passion for science, the two attended the same university, taught at the same school, and were both nominated for the same prestigious teaching in STEM award. 
 
“The legacy continues, right,” said Gillan. “I mean, she graduated from Kearney State, became this awesome teacher, then mentored me, and now I'm trying to do the same. For years it was my goal, I was like, ‘I just want to be like Judy. I want to be as good as Judy.’” 
 
Williams graduated from Kearney State in 1971, and nearly 40 years later Gillan completed her teaching certificate and her M.S. in Biology online from the University of Nebraska at Kearney.  
 
Williams was a science teacher at Central City Public Schools from 1967 to 2000. During this time, she founded the school’s first ever science research courses.  
 
“The research at Central City stopped after she left. And that was pretty hard for her,” Gillan said. 
 
That is, until Gillan began teaching biology and health sciences at Central City Public High School. 
 
“When Chelle came on board, then the program came back and really started growing,” Williams said. “It's so much fun to watch Chelle and what she's done with it, because she's really taken it to the next level.” 

Chelle with four students holding purple ribbons at a science fair.
 
Since Gillan rejuvenated the program, she has had many students place in state and national research competitions and science fairs, and some of her high school students already have their work published in national scientific journals. 
 
“The collaborations that have come as a result of my time at UNK are very rewarding,” Gillan said. “I am so thankful for how helpful the UNK biology faculty have been with my own research students. I could probably count at least ten that have worked closely with my students.” 
 
Collaborating with UNK’s faculty proved to be even more important than helping students win science fairs. 
 
“A lot of these students have never set foot on a college campus, and they don't necessarily have the resources to go visit,” said Gillan. “To get this experience in high school communicating with those college professors it makes college seem attainable to them that, ‘Hey, I could fit in this world.’ And that’s big. That’s life changing.” 
 
Another life changing opportunity for Gillan and her students is Gillan’s recent nomination for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. The winner of this prestigious award is honored at the White House and will receive $10,000 for their school. 
 
“I nominated Shelley for this award because she's the most passionate and dedicated teacher I know in terms of her teaching and in students learning. The beauty of her teaching is that as students learn the content. She's also teaching them the skills needed to be critical thinkers and lifelong learners,” said Williams, who won the award in 1995. 
 
After the nomination, there is an extensive application for the award. 

Chelle working with three students in science classroom.
 
“What is really cool about the award is it is the most comprehensive reflection that a teacher will probably ever do on their teaching,” Gillan said. “It is such a learning experience and a growing experience that it's just cool to apply.” 
 
Gillan was recently selected as a state winner and is currently awaiting the final decision, which will be announced by the White House. 
 
“I really think that my time at UNK set me up very well for this award,” Gillan said. “Partially because of the research that my students are doing and the help of the UNK faculty. And obviously everything I learned as a part of the biology master’s program. You can even go back to my teaching degree that I received from UNK, that set me up to be the teacher that I am. There's a lot to thank UNK for relating to this award.” 
 
Gillan is also thankful to her mentor and friend, Williams. And she believes that she might have accomplished her goal of becoming “as good as Judy.” 
 
“At one point, maybe within the last couple of years, I was like, ‘I might be as good as Judy,’” Gillan said. “It just occurred to me: I might have actually accomplished my goal.”

By: Heidi Knake

Category: Graduate Studies, General, Education, Natural and Social Sciences, UNK Online

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