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Biotech Teaching Great Nicki Derryberry of Mesa, Arizona, Wins Milken Educator Award and $25,000 Cash Prize

November 16, 2015

SANTA MONICA, CA — Nicki Derryberry of Red Mountain High School in Mesa, Arizona, is known for putting students on a powerful track to succeed in the sciences. Who knew that Derryberry’s own journey would be forever changed with a prestigious Milken Educator Award?

Today before an enthusiastic schoolwide assembly filled with cheering students, respected colleagues, distinguished officials and the media, Derryberry—advanced STEM coordinator and a biotechnology teacher—was surprised with a Milken Educator Award and its eye-popping unrestricted $25,000 cash prize.

Derryberry is among up to only 40 educators who will be presented with the prestigious honor during the Milken Family Foundation’s (MFF) coast-to-coast tour across the country. MFF has been rewarding outstanding elementary and secondary educators with the Award since 1987.

Milken Family Foundation Chairman and Co-Founder Lowell Milken has visited thousands of classrooms over the past three decades. He presented Derryberry with the Award alongside Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas.

“At a time when we need more highly skilled workers in the sciences to compete in a global economy, Nicki Derryberry is preparing our nation’s next generation of leaders to fill these important jobs,” said Milken. “In Nicki’s classroom, science is a true art. Students are captivated by her ability to make the content rich, engaging and relevant to daily life. In turn, student learning is soaring. I applaud her tremendous dedication to students at Red Mountain High and beyond, and look forward to following her journey as a model for the profession.” 

“It is my absolute privilege to help recognize a truly remarkable teacher like Nicki Derryberry,” said Douglas. “Educators like Nicki are the reason I am so proud to hold this office. The commitment she has shown to providing a world-class education for all her students is second to none, and it shows in their academic achievements. She is a shining example of what is great about education in Arizona, and I hope that this award reminds everyone just how much great teachers can impact our schools and communities.”

Before her tenure in Mesa Public Schools, Derryberry was a student intern and teacher in the Chandler Unified School District. Throughout her seven years in education, her high-powered teaching strategies have been noted for motivating students to chart career paths in the sciences.

Derryberry’s approaches to teaching are highly creative. At Red Mountain High, she operates her classroom like a company, in which groups of students work at stations and are responsible for their own equipment and materials. This unique classroom structure helps her to engage students in a rigorous educational process, challenging them to think critically, problem-solve and master content-specific vocabulary.

The whole campus became captivated by Derryberry’s teaching when she created a mystery of the missing mountain lion—Red Mountain High’s mascot. She designed a crime scene and wrote a script. The scene was filmed and aired along with interviews of administrators, students and teachers. Derryberry’s biomedical science students collected DNA samples, analyzed shoe prints and made predictions based on evidence. The process taught them how to work to prove or disprove a hypothesis.

The results of Derryberry’s exemplary instruction were evident in the school’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) assessment scores and end-of-year student surveys. After her first year at Mesa, all of her students passed the Career and Technical Bioscience state exam, scoring higher than any other school in the district and 15% higher than students the previous year. Additionally, over 95% of her students passed the AIMS science assessment, with 62% exceeding the standard.

Outside of the classroom, Derryberry serves as the biotechnology team leader and representative for the School Improvement Committee. Consistently proactive at mentoring others and being mentored, she participates in weekly professional learning communities, connects with local K–12 and higher institutions, and presents at the district and state levels on STEM research and instructional best practices.

In Chandler, Derryberry established VEX Robotics throughout the district, and as a result of her guidance on the district science fair, students received more than 25% of Arizona Science and Engineering Fair awards, with many proceeding to the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. She also co-directed a $350,000 Math and Science Partnership grant through the U.S. Department of Education that provided development trainings and resources to district science teachers in grades 6-8.

Dedicated to nurturing careers in science, she mentored a Chandler student through a competitive application process for an internship at Phoenix’s prestigious Barrow Neurological Institute; the teen was eventually chosen over hundreds of other applicants and now assists there in Alzheimer’s research.

Derryberry is a member and volunteer for the American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics in the areas of curriculum development and outreach as well as a member of the national and state science teachers associations. She graduated with a B.S. in biological sciences from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2007, and honed her teaching skills at Arizona State University, from which she received her M.A. in secondary education in 2009 with an emphasis in science.

More information about Derryberry, plus photos and a video from today’s assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at

The Milken Educator Awards program has been described as “the Oscars of teaching” by Teacher magazine. Recipients are selected in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. Many have gone on to earn advanced degrees and be placed in prominent posts and on state and national education committees.

Alternating yearly between elementary and secondary educators, the Milken Awards are sourced through each participating state department of education, which appoints an independent blue ribbon committee to confidentially review candidates for recommendation to MFF.

This year, MFF launched a #MyTeacherRocks Instagram campaign that encourages students to take selfies with their favorite teacher and describe in the caption why their teacher is special. To enter the contest, entrants are asked to follow @MilkenFamilyFdn on Instagram, post their selfie to their individual account and use the #MyTeacherRocks and #MilkenAward hashtags. The three photos with the most “likes” will be selected in November 2015, and February and April 2016.

To get regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

For more information about the Milken Educator Awards, visit or call MFF at (310) 570-4772.

The Milken Educator Awards tour is on social media at;;; and

The Milken Educator Awards, created by the Milken Family Foundation, were launched in 1987. The Awards provide public recognition and individual financial rewards of $25,000 to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and specialists from around the country who are furthering excellence in education. Recipients are heralded in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish.

Jana Rausch
Senior Manager of Media and Public Affairs
310-570-4774 310-435-9259