Congratulations to all of our Voya Unsung Heroes winners. Each year, 100 finalists receive $2,000 while three of them are selected as Top Winners to receive additional grants of $25,000, $10,000, and $5,000. You can find winners for your state or for a specific year using the controls below.

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Michael Backus (2016)

Wasilla, AK
Teeland Middle School

Backus’ innovative teaching idea, “Robotic Blimps and Submarine,” is focused on building a program that enables students to design robotic contraptions. Students will be able to construct and program robotic submarines and blimps using sophisticated computer programming, while learning about engineering, electricity, and buoyancy. With the grant funds, Backus will have the opportunity to provide additional materials and equipment to his students so that they can create more advanced contraptions of their own design. In this program, Backus hopes students will learn many of the skills and concepts expected of middle school students while in an engaging and challenging manner and environment. 

Lane Patterson (2016)

Jacksonville, AL
Jacksonville High School

Patterson’s innovative teaching idea, “New Health Science Program,” is focused on educating students in all aspects of the healthcare field, to develop and inspire future jobs in a medical-based field. The program will consist of three different classes and a senior internship, made up of Foundations of Health, Therapeutics, and Medical Interventions. The equipment provided with this grant is funding more than a curriculum and daily classroom activities – it is building potential doctors, nurses, EMTs and pharmacists who could make a significant difference in the medical world one day. Patterson believes this will open up new doors and introduce many new ideas to students who may not have known they were interested in the medical field.

Terri Elder (2016)

Birmingham, AL
Wylam K-8 School

Elder’s innovative teaching idea, “Library Makerspace,” is focused on providing an interactive do-it-yourself working space where students can gather to create, invent and learn. The space will contain various items ranging from building tools to 3D printers, craft supplies and electronics. Through the use of specialized building blocks, the students involved in the program will have an opportunity to learn from other users all over the world. According to Elder, the building blocks utilized in the program will be designed under the belief that regardless of ones gender, age, or technical background, everyone should have the opportunity to "build, invent, and prototype with electronics." As many students at Wylam K-8 School are not exposed to student interactions outside of their own neighborhoods, the “Library Makerspace” will also provide an opportunity to connect with students in other states and even other countries, ultimately broadening their view of the world as global learners.

Angie Kelley (2016)

Anniston, AL
White Plains Middle School

Kelley’s innovative teaching idea,” Coding to Comprehend,” is focused on teaching her students how to read and write computer code to increase their creativity and challenge their critical thinking skills. This project is unique because it will be part of the first computer science course taught at any middle school in Kelley’s school system. Students will learn the basics of computer programming through different modules available like and Google CS-First. Kelley also plans to integrate robotics into the curriculum. Students will use their coding knowledge to program LEGO Mindstorm robots to help solve a real-world problem of their choice. Kelley hopes this program will inspire her students to explore a career in computer science, especially as the demand for qualified professionals in the field continues to grow.

Sarah Jewell (2016)

Fayetteville, AR
Holt Middle School

Jewell’s innovative teaching idea, “Library Innovation Stations,” is focused on providing students at Holt Middle School access to resources and knowledge that will allow them to create, collaborate and develop their ideas. Students involved in the program will be empowered with a culture of innovation, invention, and creativity while generating critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Jewell believes every student has an area of interest that they are passionate about, but many students go from class to class never getting to explore the areas of learning that interest them most. “Library Innovation Stations” is designed to allow students to pursue their individual learning passions, ultimately with the hopes of driving their engagement and motivation in the classroom.

JoAnne Wilbanks (2016)

Ward, AR
Ward Central Elementary School

Wilbanks’ innovative teaching idea, “Blinding You With Science,” is focused on creating an environment to help science come alive for her kindergarten students. Wilbanks’ believes kindergarten is the perfect opportunity to instill a passion for the scientific process. During each unit, she will transform her classroom into a hands-on science lab — complete with manipulatives, glowing mucus/slime and real-life insects. Additionally, she will use virtual reality equipment to help her kindergarten class dive into the ocean, rocket through space and explore the circulatory system of the human body. Wilbanks’ hopes her innovative program will inspire her students to become the next generation of scientists.

Tanielle Kazmierczak and Jared Jacobson (2016)

Florence, AZ
Circle Cross Ranch K-8 STEM Academy

Kazmierczak and Jacobson’s innovative teaching idea, “Remote Controlled STEM,” is focused on developing a robotics program for Circle Cross Ranch K-8 STEM Academy elementary students that will connect with the current middle school robotics program, while developing a flying elective for the middle school students. The elementary robotics program would start in kindergarten where students will learn how to program basic robots through a series of hands-on activities. Moving on to second and third grade students, the focus would be on building LEGO robots and programming them. Finally, the fourth and fifth grade students would use the LEGO middle school robotics program to learn how to build more complex robots and to program them to do multiple tasks. The middle school drone elective, on the other hand, would have students learning about the uses for drones, researching designs for their drones, and working in small groups to design, build, and program their drones.

Scott Cumberledge (2016)

Mesa, AZ
Eugene Field Elementary School

Cumberledge’s innovative teaching idea, “Growing Knowledge,” is focused on creating a garden program for Eugene Field Elementary School’s five special education classes. Though the gardens will benefit the entire school, they will distinctly provide a unique and meaningful learning experience for the students deeply involved in the program. Cumberledge believes that gardens provide "real world" examples and experiences that boost learning for students who thrive on practical instruction. With this grant, the school will purchase two-three aboveground planters — but the investment will expand so much further. Cumberledge hopes the students will develop skills beyond what is gained in the classroom, through connecting with nature and each other in new ways.

Russell Nail and Cole Sampson (2016)

Arvin, CA
Grimmway Academy

Nail’s and Sampson’s innovative teaching idea, “Aquaponic Gardening,” will give students a new perspective on farming with insights into efficient use of land, water, energy and ecological resources. Students will research, engineer and build a system to capture, filter and recycle water from the school’s culinary kitchen to use in an aquaponic gardening project. Aquaponic gardens are self-sustaining environments that allow both crops and aquatic animals that have a symbiotic relationship to live together in harmony. The project will provide students with real-life examples of solar power production, photosynthesis and the water cycle. Additionally, students will gain knowledge and hands-on experience with the lifecycle of aquatic animals, such as shrimp and fish. The project will also empower students to apply “green” concepts to working examples of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum they can use and experience. 

DeWayne Mason, Ph.D. (2016)

Jurupa Valley, CA
Patriot High School

Dr. Mason's innovative teaching idea, “Morality and Diversity Murals,” is focused on providing an art outlet for students to apply moral thinking and art expertise to create murals that recognize and promote diversity and important moral values. The project goal is to advance students’ knowledge of the core values of a “good society,” including teamwork, respect, responsibility, commitment, discovery, empathy and the pursuit of excellence in learning and character. The associated art benefit is to teach students the elements, principles and purposes of art. By combining these two areas, students who are not typically enrolled in formal art classes at the middle- and secondary-levels will have the opportunity to grow both morally and artistically. This project expands upon an innovative, but limited, program currently underway at Patriot High School — and seeks to serve up to 22 schools and 10,000 students in grades six through twelve. Project murals will be displayed at highly visible school, district, and community venues, for all to see the positive impact of the program.