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2011 Science and Mathematics Principal of the Year
James Sonju, principal, Lincoln K-8 Choice School, Rochester. To visit the Lincoln K-8 Web, click on Sonju's photo.

 Jim Sonju recognized for fostering science and math literacy at Rochester school

(St. Paul, MN; January 5, 2011) – James Sonju, principal of Lincoln K-8 Choice School, Rochester, has been named 2011 Science and Mathematics Elementary and Middle Level Principal of the Year

Created through a partnership between the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Minnesota Elementary School Principals’ Association (MESPA), the award recognizes the vital importance of fostering lifelong science literacy and honors the key role principals play in developing a culture that encourages and celebrates student interest in math and science.

In reviewing applications for this year’s award recipient, the award committee looked for evidence of the nominees’ support of professional development and coaching for the teachers in their schools, active partnerships with other organizations, efforts to apply math and science standards to curriculum and provide support materials, support of out-of-school as well as in-school experiences, inclusion of families, and evidence of other creative ways of fostering interest in math and science.

How has James Sonju earned this honor? In brief – studying zebrafish. The zebrafish has properties that make it amenable to scientific study, such as transparent bodies and short life cycle, providing a hands-on approach to studying genetics. In more detail -- Sonju helped teachers from all disciplines experience cutting-edge science so that they could produce curriculum in a horizontally integrated, vertically aligned manner, curriculum that directly addresses opportunities for improvement at their school.

Sonju received four nominations for the award, from: Chris Pierret, Ph.D., and the leadership team of Integrated Science Education Outreach (InSciEd Out); Betsy McCain Schroeder, a Lincoln K-8 parent; Cathy Nathan, a Lincoln K-8 parent for 10 years; and Megan Oswald and Beth Napton, Lincoln K-8 teachers.

Said Megan Oswald, “In February of 2008, James Sonju approached our staff about revolutionizing the way we teach science. Our data, in relation to the nation’s data, showed that students were not actively engaged in science and were not entering scientific fields.  Mr. Sonju had spoken with Steve Ekker, a scientist at Mayo Clinic, about writing a new curriculum and changing the way science was taught. Thus InSciEd Out was born. Through this partnership, Mr. Sonju has greatly impacted the way our students and staff view science. No longer is it an hour lesson that you teach while the students take notes. Now lessons stretch on for days, driven by student inquiries and projects. Science has also bubbled over into math as students work on proportions for feeding zebrafish, into language arts as students write up lab reports, and into social studies as students learn about the history of important scientific discoveries.”

According to Chris Pierret, “In 2009, James Sonju coordinated InSciEd Out, working with partner Mayo Clinic, to successfully vie for $80,000 in funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to create a STEM professional development program for area teachers. This program has served 130 teachers and reached 2000 students thus far. In 2010, Mr. Sonju worked with his staff to build a $30,000 grant funded by the Rochester Public School District, then received matching funds from the Center for Translational Science at Mayo Clinic – and used the money to provide professional development for two additional teaching teams (40 teachers) from other schools in the Rochester district.” The collaboration also has engaged teachers early in their career with STEM as pre-service teachers, which has led to a partnership with Winona State University – providing outstanding support for students, staff and teachers just entering the field.

“Jim Sonju came to Lincoln with a mission,” according to Beth Napton. “From the beginning he brought energy and resources to our building…He has lifted the bar for his building and everyone has risen to it, including parents.” He has even created a STEM boot-camp for parents.

“The programs he (Sonju) has spearheaded have demonstrated very positive outcomes, both in terms of hard data and in generating a passion for science and mathematics in our students,” according to Cathy Nathan. “Lincoln is in the second year of implementing the InSciEd Out project, a partnership with the Mayo Clinic. This partnership happened because Mr. Sonju had the vision to say yes to the opportunity offered by Mayo Clinic researchers and the leadership to bring the whole school staff and parent community aboard.”

A few of the InSciEd Out results after just two years include:

  • Curriculum modules have been written for all grades K-8, integrating science standards with math, history, social studies, language arts, art and physical education.
  • The growth in 6th-8th grade Science Fair participation has rocketed from only 7 students to nearly 80%.
  • Standardized testing in the 5th and 8th grades show 14 and 33% improvement, respectively.
  • Between 2006-2008, on average less than 40 percent of 8th grade students registered for Honors Biology for their freshman year of high school. In 2009, 86% percent were registered for Honors Biology.

Pierret sums up the consensus of all Sonju’s nominations: “James and his team have worked to create an environment that fosters student and teacher innovation. We, the leadership team of InSciEd Out, have yet to identify a principal or educator who is leaving bigger footprints in STEM education than James Sonju.”

“The collaboration we have built that is making such a difference for kids has been amazing and I look forward to the opportunity to share just what is possible with willing partners and an education community that has learned to embrace science and math!” said Sonju in response to receiving the honor.  “The award will mean a great deal to many people as the partnership of students, parents, staff, science researchers, and pre-service teachers all have such an invested interest for each other and the work. Thank you so much for recognizing the work our school has been so dedicated in building and spreading to other schools. This collaboration has been a dream come true and unlike anything I have ever seen or heard of in education. The project is an evolving energy sparking student engagement in a variety of forms from fish murals, student created songs and music videos, along with cutting edge science and use of a fluorescent microscope looking at genetic mutations. We welcome others to visit our school to observe our "fish room" with our Aquaneering fish system with which students maintain up to 1,500 zebrafish for their research. In just two years our school has been transformed into 419 scientists in grades Kindergarten through eighth grade. Four words are magic to my ears, ‘I am a Scientist!’’

As the 2011 Science and Mathematics Elementary Principal of the Year, Sonju will be recognized by Dr. Eric J. Jolly, president of the Science Museum of Minnesota, during the MESPA Institute Awards Banquet on Thursday, February 10, in Bloomington, MN.  In addition, Lincoln K-8 Choice School students and staff will receive complimentary Science Museum education programming. 


The award is offered in alternate years to specialty and general education school principals. In 2011, a general education principal was recognized. In 2012, the honor will go to a specialty school principal (environmental, math, or science, specialty/magnet school). Applications for next year’s 2012 Science and Mathematics Elementary and Middle Level Principal of the Year will be accepted at the Science Museum beginning on September 1, 2011 – and will be due by December 1.  For more information, call 651-221-9421.

The Minnesota Elementary School Principals’ Association is dedicated to promoting and improving education for children and youth, strengthening the role as educational leader for elementary and middle level principals and collaborating with partners in education to assist in achieving those goals.

The Science Museum of Minnesota has a 100-year history of bringing science learning to life through hands-on exhibits, giant screen films, and unparalleled educational opportunities for all ages.  For more information about the wide range of education programs for school groups, teachers, kids, families, and adults, visit the museum’s Web site at