A classroom full of drones, roller coasters and excitement

SPONSORED: Teacher Jacob Doth does something incredible every week, nine months a year. He transforms classrooms full of middle schoolers into STEM fans.

For 20 years, BP has been recognizing Alaska’s exceptional teachers—like Jacob Doth— with the BP Teachers of Excellence program. Since 1995, they’ve recognized 650 teachers. Click here to nominate another deserving teacher. New this year, you can also nominate a principal, school nurse, teaching assistant or other school staff member for the Educational Allies Award, recognizing the unsung heroes in our schools.

Jacob Doth, a middle school science teacher in Nikiski, uses textbooks a lot.

He uses them as ramps off of which to launch homemade cars for engineering lessons. He uses them as backboards for rogue ping pong balls in demonstrations about laws of motion. He uses them as materials to build towers and roller coasters in his classroom.

Sure, he uses them in the traditional sense as well, provided they reinforce the crux of his educational ideology: to be interactive and create meaning.

“We ask these kids to sit through eight hours of learning a day and I think that kids learn better if they’re engaged and are a part of the lesson,” Doth said. “Then they don’t even realize how much they’re learning, because they enjoy it. On the other hand, if they’re struggling to take notes, it’s like turning a firehose on and telling them to take a sip, and that’s not meaningful or engaging.”

Doth’s inspiring teaching techniques made him a natural fit for a BP Teachers of Excellence award in 2015.

What Doth excels at is making abstruse scientific method relevant to more than 130 seventh and eighth grade students.

When his students were learning about the ancient people of Alaska in social studies, he explained force by heaving ancient throwing sticks they’d recreated in ballistics gelatin to mimic what it would have been like for Alaska Native ancestors to hunt caribou.

He also co-created a series of engineering competitions in which all the middle schoolers were divvied into engineering firms and given “money” (with the teachers’ faces in lieu of presidents’), spreadsheets and challenges to complete, like making a self-propelled boat with a battery and a rubber band or building a car that travels down a ramp and stops at exactly 3.25 meters.

“It sounds like a cheesy little problem, making the car stop at exactly 3.25 meters, but it’s so profound in its problem solving,” Doth said. “They’re redesigning on the fly and doing it in their heads well before the car has stopped moving, so they’re developing ways to solve problems.”

While the competitions primarily deal with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the core tenets of STEM), projects like building a roller coaster also underscore the importance of time management and teamwork.

“It might not sound like STEM, but it is,” Doth said. “The reality of the technology and engineering world is you’re working with a tremendous amount of people with different personalities and abilities, and yet everybody has a role. With these projects we’re finding success on multiple levels, and kids are realizing that they have different skill sets that they can use in the STEM field. It’s really exciting.”

Teacher Jacob Doth of Nikiski with a classroom full of STEM learners.

As both a scientist and a teacher, Doth is incredibly passionate about STEM. That fervor translates to his students.

“He’s one of those guys that brings not just passion to his subject, but also to his kids,” said principal Dan Carstens. “It’s an excitement. Kids are excited to be in his class.”

Doth’s infectious energy has rallied interest in science education at Nikiski Middle School.

“The guy is like the Pied Piper, because whatever he does, the kids want to do with him,” Carstens said.

When some of his high-flying eighth grade boys weren’t able to finish a laminar flow machine project they’d been working on before the end of the school year, Doth told them he was proud of them for what they’d done, even though he didn’t expect to see them next year. But when students came back in the fall as freshmen, they asked if they could sneak into the back of the classroom and keep working. It wasn’t for points. It wasn’t for bragging rights. It was for the love of science — a love that Doth nurtured with his unrelenting enthusiasm and tireless support.

“They were a tremendous group of young men,” Doth said. “You look at them in high school, and they’re in completely different groups, yet they built this together. They were a team. They’ll probably never do a sleepover at each others’ houses, probably never go to a party together. But in my room, they were brothers in arms. If science can do that, it transcends any textbook you can buy.”

Eighth grader Kaitlyn Johnson couldn’t pinpoint what specifically makes her teacher so special, but her myriad of answers circled back to one theme: He’s a champion for his students, whether that’s taking extra time to explain a concept through a multitude of learning styles so the whole class understands or supporting their ideas in a way that makes them feel like they matter.

Like when some students came to him with a plan to make an air bazooka and Doth stayed late after school and came in on weekends to help see it to completion.

And he actively seeks out opportunities for his students to grow.

He brought in a 180-gallon aquarium and allowed his students to pick a country to “put in the tank.” They picked Afghanistan, and together they spent a year putting the different environmental elements of that country — everything from light to temperature to humidity to animal life — into the tank, creating a portal to another place in his Nikiski classroom. Then they did it again with Costa Rica, making it possible for students to take real water samples and look at how real species of plants react to different rain and humidity levels.

“It can’t get more relevant than that — when you can see it and touch it in your classroom every day,” Doth said.

And when an email went out from University of Alaska Fairbanks about creating unmanned aerial vehicles, he signed his students up. Now those eighth grade students are 3-D printing and wiring drones that are flying fully-automated missions with hands-off computer generated GIS, GPS and mapping software with thermal imaging cameras.

And to think, he never intended to become a teacher. He graduated pre-med and was set to be a doctor. But after realizing that wasn’t for him, he started a Ph.D. program in molecular biology. When his tuition money ran out, he wasn’t sure what to do, so he set out from Minnesota for Alaska, ending up in Nikiski.

“I think all that run-around business was to show me that this is exactly where I belong,” Doth said. “I will never get a Ph.D., I will never be a doctor, I will never teach at a college, and I’m so glad. I’m glad I ran out of money and ended up here. I’m not sure if that’s romantic or irresponsible, but either way, it means I have a job working with amazing kids every day.”

This story is sponsored by BP, where one-time middle school STEM lovers turn curiosity into a career. BP invested more than $60 million in STEM education across the U.S. from 2012-14. In Alaska, BP supports STEM education programs such as robotics, summer engineering academies at UAA, the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP), the Alaska Process Industry Careers Consortium (APICC), along with school district career and technical education programs.

This article was produced by the special content department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with BP. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.