True Grinnellian: Jan Phifer


Paul Hansen

Jan Phifer received the Iowa STEM teacher award for her dedication to inspiring and cultivating interest in STEM.

Taylor Nunley, Staff Writer

Jan Phifer is a child of six — as a young girl, she and her siblings spent their summer days exploring the Colorado mountains and playing in the creek near their Iowa home. Even though she was young at the time, Phifer believes her early exploration of the world is what sparked her interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). 

Now, as a preschool teacher at Fairview Elementary School, Phifer has received the Iowa STEM  Teacher Award from the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council and Kemin Industries for her dedication to inspiring and cultivating local Grinnell elementary students’ interest in the STEM field.

The Iowa STEM Teacher Award honors six teachers from different regions across the state. Nominated by her peers, Phifer had the distinction of being named the esteemed recipient of the award for the South Central Iowa STEM region.

Phifer has long been involved in improving the STEM curriculum at her school. In her 31 years teaching at Fairview Elementary, she has written a number of STEM grants for the Iowa STEM Scale-Up Program, including one for this academic year involving water exploration.

“She’s a terrific model for myself and the other preschool teacher, Jordan,” Andrea Zhorne, a preschool teacher at Fairview Elementary, said of Phifer. “It’s been a joy to work with her and to see how she gets kids engaged in learning about STEM, and then scaffolding where they’re at and moving them up to the next level.”

Phifer said she believes STEM education at an early age is crucial for children. “As I continue to train through ongoing professional development, the importance of this component [STEM education] in early learning has become more of a focus versus when I first started training in early childhood [education], where literacy was really a heavy focus. But I think now they are realizing the importance of providing this type of learning experience for kids is just as important if not more important,” Phifer said.

When teaching, she said she starts with her students’ “sense of wonder and curiosity.”

If you think about working with young children, even toddlers, all they do is ask why and how. They want to know how the world works… Oftentimes, parents, or caregivers or the people working with them don’t know an immediate answer that can help the child, and instead, they can discover it together

— Jan Phifer, Teacher at Fairview Elementary

Phifer’s classroom is full of hands-on materials to encourage students to build and problem-solve their way to an answer or concept — a myriad of water containers, with holes meant for discovering how water flows, and magnetic builders are just some of the different tools Phifer’s students use to explore STEM at a young age.

Phifer was also involved in an after-school activity, for kindergarten through second-grade students, called Tiny Techies. The program works to facilitate and encourage students’ knowledge of early coding. With the $1,500 Phifer will receive for her classroom from the Iowa STEM award, Phifer said it is possible for the school to expand the Tiny Techies program. As it exists now, students from the neighboring Bailey Park Elementary School are bussed over for the after-school program, causing around a 40-minute delay. Her idea is to duplicate the materials so the program can be housed in both schools individually and students have more time to engage.

“It’s not set in stone yet because those materials are pretty expensive,” Phifer added.

Following the official announcement of her award, Phifer’s school held a surprise assembly in her name.

“I was pretty overwhelmed and not prepared,” she said, speaking about her reaction to the award. “I think it was because when I look at all the amazing things going on in the state in the area of STEM, I thought it was incredibly touching that someone nominated me … I felt very honored and loved that the importance of the building blocks that we can provide here was recognized at the state level.”

Despite teaching in Grinnell for over 30 years, Phifer lives in the nearby city of Monroe. Although she did receive an offer to teach in Monroe’s school district, she declined it. To her, the Grinnell-Newburg district is “worth the drive.”