Aquatic robots and 3D-printed coral: Anchorage teacher connects students to real-world science

Cat Walker stood in waist-deep water tossing pink plastic balls meant to simulate an oil spill while her Dimond High School students navigated their remotely operated vehicles around the pool, attempting to sweep the water clean.

”Good luck, save the wildlife!” said Walker, who was recently named one of four finalists for the 2024 National Teacher of the Year competition.

She grinned at her students as unruly robots — including one named Aquafina decorated with Barbie-pink tape, and another called Rover that had a talent for diving — swerved through an obstacle course of Hula-Hoops and plastic rings.

As the hour passed, Walker helped her students troubleshoot issues. One robot was struggling to remain buoyant, so she suggested trimming some of its weight. One was having electrical issues while another was unable to travel beneath the water’s surface.

Walker cheered when her students found solutions to their robots’ problems. That’s her favorite part, she said: seeing their lightbulb moments.

These types of practical lessons are also what makes her so special as a teacher, according to Dimond High principal Tina Johnson-Harris, who nominated Walker for the national award.

“She just wants to ensure that if they’re looking at science, how does it apply to the real world?” Johnson-Harris said.


Most of Walker’s class assignments have real-world applications. Her desk is full of tiny, colorful 3D-printed coral that mimic the features of real coral, which she uses to teach students about coral bleaching.

Each year, she takes her students to Whittier to clean up plastic from the beaches that they then grind into reusable plastic, which they hope to use to build a picnic bench at Dimond.

Walker has been teaching for 18 years, and has taught science, career and technical education at Dimond for the past seven years. She said she’s excited about the school district’s career academies, which are being launched next year and will eventually require students to pick a career track to follow through high school.

She said she hopes her classes will get more students interested in STEM careers, especially those who are traditionally underrepresented in those fields.

“She’s super supportive of my aviation career plan,” said student Mackena Sopp, who said she has always known she wanted to be a pilot, and recently completed her first solo flight.

“I’m not an engineer, but she made (this class) fun,” said Cat Arima, another of Walker’s students, who joined the school’s ocean club early in high school after discovering her passion for marine biology. “She really gets you engaged.”

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Walker will find out in the spring whether she’s won the national competition for Teacher of the Year, which is put on each year by an education nonprofit, the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Walker and the other three finalists were chosen out of a pool of 55 teachers named as state teachers of the year by their state or territory.

She said her biggest hope for Alaska’s public education is more funding. This year, her class sizes range from 35 to 38.

“Class size is huge,” she said. “I think it’s the No. 1 thing we can do to help schools with their performance, is just have a better teacher-to-student ratio.”

[Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly called coral plants. They are animals.]

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Annie Berman

Annie Berman is a reporter covering health care, education and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. She previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in San Francisco before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at