STEMinent: Alumnus math teacher named among the nation’s best

Andy Kotko
First-grade math teacher Andy Kotko was one of 213 educators nationwide to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics & Science Training in 2016. (Folsom Cordova Unified School District/Daniel Thigpen)

These days, Andy Kotko is feeling positively presidential.

The Sac State alumnus and first-grade math teacher found himself in the White House on Sept. 8, being honored as one of the best educators in the nation. He and 212 other teachers have been awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics & Science Training – the highest distinction of its kind that recognizes elite STEM teachers.

His road to the Washington, D.C., started in another capital – California’s – at Sacramento State, where he earned his degree in physics. Kotko’s background in science, though it was not ultimately his calling, helped craft the unique skill set he employs today at Mather Heights Elementary in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District.

“Physicists might not realize it, but they probably make some of the best teachers,” he says, “because they can take a really complex system and break it down into all the variables, find the problems ,and then address them.”

For Kotko, the third time’s a charm: He has twice been a finalist for the Presidential Award before winning it this year. He and the other awardees receive a $10,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Over 15 years, Kotko has honed his craft in the classroom, introducing students to math at a crucial time in their educational lives.

“It’s at a very young age where kids decide whether they’re good at math or good at science, and once they kind of check out, it’s that self-fulfilling prophecy: ‘Oh, I’m not a math person,’ ” he says.“Maybe you just haven’t been taught properly.”

Kotko engages students by learning how each works individually, watching the mistakes he or she makes, and reframing the experience so each can master the concept. By taking a systematic, step-by-step approach, Kotko says he can lead his students to complete very challenging work that doesn’t feel all that difficult.

His methods have been paying off as he has helped to shape the next generation of STEM leaders. But it’s his work outside the classroom that has helped Kotko make a difference on an even greater scale.

In 2014, he was appointed chair of the California Teacher Advisory Council, where he lends his voice to public policy issues that affect educators across the state. He is also a founding teacher in his district’s Academy for Advanced Learning, which draws students of all ages from across the region for inquiry and project-based learning.

His efforts across the board have earned him his field’s most prestigious honor, one that he attributes to the teachers who influenced him throughout his own school career.

“Even now, I couldn’t do what I do by myself,” Kotko says. “I’ve got great colleagues, great families, and it’s this great big team that’s working together. The kids, they’re working their tails off.

“When all that comes together, that’s where the magic happens.”

Presidential Leadership Scholar continues crusade for clean energy

Brandon Kline
Brandon Kline has dedicated his career to the pursuit of energy security in the United States. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

Can capitalism help save the planet? Proud Sacramento State alumnus Brandon Kline thinks it can.

An energy law fellow at the Green Energy Institute at Lewis & Clark University in Portland, Ore., Kline has dedicated his career to the pursuit of clean energy. And while his master’s thesis is on the role that capital markets play in addressing climate change, that barely scratches the surface of his efforts this past year.

Since 2015, Kline (’05, Government) has graduated from law school, earned his master’s in energy law, and was one of just 61 experts selected for the Presidential Leadership Scholars (PLS) program – one of the nation’s most exclusive and groundbreaking think tanks – all with the ultimate aim of answering America’s most pressing energy questions through public policy.

“This is not something where we should be looking at climate change as a polarizing issue,” Kline says. “Because we’re not really talking about climate change; we’re talking more about securing this nation’s energy sources and looking at what’s the smartest way for us to be able to produce energy.”

In the midst of it all, Kline and his wife, Rosilynn, had a daughter earlier this year. He plans to spend some much-deserved family time before launching his PLS project in the fall.

Now in its third year, PLS is a leadership development program that brings together diverse leaders from all over the country to address some of the nation’s most persistent issues. Each participant proposes his or her own project on a specific issue. They draw on resources from four presidential centers and work directly with former presidents, their senior staff members, and top industry leaders to find solutions that transcend party lines.

Kline was selected from more than 900 applicants for his project on energy security.

His project tackles myriad questions: How can we effectively get energy from areas producing the most renewable resources to the rest of the country? How can federal leadership ensure that states use more renewable energy? How can we create a wellspring of information to inform comprehensive energy policies that don’t change with each new presidential administration? From solar companies to leaders in the coal industry, interests from across the energy spectrum are a part of the discussion.

“The way I’m approaching it is not having only the clean guys at the table; you need to have everyone at the table,” he says.

Brandon Kline with Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush
Brandon Kline and Presidents Bill Clinton (left) and George W. Bush at a Presidential Leadership Scholars event. (Scott Beale/Atlas Corps.)

The project is the latest incarnation of a personal campaign that started over a decade ago at Sacramento State.

Originally from San Luis Obispo, Kline moved to Sacramento for the opportunity to make a meaningful impact in the world through public policy. He enrolled at Sac State and went absolutely gangbusters, taking advantage of as many opportunities as possible to get inside the State Capitol: He interned at the California Energy Commission, which Kline says “had a huge effect on (his) worldview” and prompted him to study energy law; he interned at the California Business Roundtable; he was a member of the University’s award-winning Capital Fellows Programs.

“I had a premier education here; I got everything I needed in Sacramento,” Kline says. “This is where everything’s happening. If you want to make a difference in the world, then you have to go where the people are, where the policymakers are, where the leaders are. So that’s why for me, I wanted to get out of a small town and make a difference.”

Making a difference on the biggest scale is exactly what Kline intends to do. His thesis, for example, proposes reforms to fair disclosure requirements so that public companies would have to divulge the impacts of climate change and legislation on their bottom lines. If this kind of information had to be public, Kline says, investors would naturally get behind cleaner, more profitable companies like Tesla that are ahead of the curve. In that sense, capital markets can actually have a real, tangible impact on climate change.

It’s that kind of high-minded thinking, coupled with an insatiable drive to better the world for generations to come, that has Kline moving faster than ever down a path toward a greener future – and he’s trying to bring the rest of us along.

“We don’t need blue electrons or red electrons; we need electricity throughout this country to be clean. That’s the only way you’re to get energy security here,” he says.“If we’re going to have a comprehensive solution that’s going to impact every corner of this country, we have to be able to have everyone buy in.”


Same experiment, new Rituals: Alumna-fronted band Rituals of Mine gears up for national tour, major-label debut

Rituals of Mine
Dani Fernandez, left, and singer Terra Lopez (’07, English) have signed a major record deal with Warner Bros. Records. Formerly Sister Crayon, the electronic duo will release their major-label debut as Rituals of Mine. (Photo courtesy of Raoul Ortega)

When Dani Fernandez and Terra Lopez started writing music under the name Sister Crayon a year after Lopez graduated from Sac State, the electronic project served as a much-needed creative outlet, a rich learning experience, and an intense, grand – and definitely unorthodox – experiment. It still is.

Back then, a major-label record deal was the farthest thing from the young performers’ minds. Eight years, six records, countless concerts, and a name change later, that which seemed so far away is now a reality.

In August, the newly christened Rituals of Mine hits the road ahead of its major-label debut, Devoted, after inking a deal with Warner Bros. Records in spring 2016. The band joins Sacramento rock legends Deftones on tour through some of the biggest venues on the West Coast.

“When we first found out, Dani and I literally cried, just because it was so unexpected,” Lopez says. “We’ve been working for so long and so hard at this, there’s been a lot that we’ve experienced, that there were a lot of tears. Happy tears.”

Lopez (’07, English) has been writing music for more than 15 years. In 2008, when she linked up with Fernandez, the band’s beat producer, the two began crafting rich, haunting electronic melodies layered with Lopez’s introspective lyrics and stirring vocals.

Their style has evolved over the years, but they remain pioneers of a burgeoning Sacramento electronic music scene that they helped shape. Rituals of Mine/Sister Crayon is among the best-known electronic artists – along with bands like Team Sleep and Death Grips – to come out of the capital region. They mix organic instruments, including live drums, with computer-produced compositions in their recordings and live stage show.

It’s no easy feat: Lopez says some practices are spent entirely on learning new programs and interfaces, tweaking production, and figuring out new ways to build their sound and presence.

“We definitely always stuck out and didn’t fit in to a specific genre or sound, and I think that’s still very much the case,” Lopez says. “We’ve always strived to not be pigeonholed in a specific genre, and because we’ve been a little outside the box, we’ve been able to tour with hip-hop artists, metal acts, electronic artists, ambient artists, rock artists … just all over the map.

“If music is genuine, there doesn’t really need to be a genre.”

That is never more apparent than when looking at Ritual of Mine’s upcoming tour schedule: They follow up their August tour with one of the heaviest rock acts (and now label mates) to come out of the River City with a showcase tour supporting indie mainstays The Album Leaf through September.

Their major-label debut, Devoted, originally released in 2015 under an independent label, is being remixed and remastered by producing legend Tom Coyne, who has produced albums for the likes of Adele, Taylor Swift, and The Weeknd, and will be out later this fall.

In addition to her music career, Lopez works as a publicist for national public relations firm Terrorbird, promoting other bands and artists. She says her English education from Sac State helped shape how she writes professionally in the PR world.

In eight years, Lopez and Fernandez have traveled a long road: The two have endured personal tragedy, band members coming and going, and moves to and from different cities, and they have fought to find their place in life and in a music scene that is always evolving.

At last, Lopez says, this great, strange experiment is paying off.

“That’s what Sister Crayon has been all these years: an experiment,” Lopez says. “And luckily, we’re so grateful that people have responded well, listened, and kept listening. The process has evolved so much, just as Dani and I both have. We just want to learn as much as we can and hone our craft, and be better always.”

Rituals of Mine kicks off its tour Aug. 23 in Fresno. Catch them closest to Sacramento at the Greek Theatre on Aug. 26 in Berkeley, and watch for Devoted, out later this fall.