The Value of a Good Teacher

© 2014 Mark Dahmke


I’ve had the privilege of serving as a judge at the Greater Nebraska Science and Engineering Fair every year from 1976 through 2013. I was also a participant at GNSEF from 1972 through 1975.

In the last 40 years I’ve seen hundreds of science fair projects. By the mid-1980s I started to notice some interesting trends. I now wish I’d kept better records so I’d have more than anecdotal evidence for my findings.

Every year we see the same “bell curve” of science projects. They range from average to mediocre, from brilliant to terrible. Every few years we’ll see a new “star” student appear out of nowhere with a great new idea and enormous creativity, doing college-level work that is sometimes beyond the experience or understanding of the judges. Often those students will be with us for their entire four years of high school, win at the International Science and Engineering Fair and go on to brilliant careers as doctors, engineers or scientists.

We judges have also seen another phenomenon that plays out at least once or twice a decade. Out of nowhere a group of students from one school will show up with extraordinary projects. All are college-level work– easily the type of work one would expect from a junior or senior at the university level. They display an understanding of scientific method, lab procedures and research protocols that one would expect from college students. Often their work is publishable. They go on to outstanding college and professional careers. Then, as suddenly as that school came onto the scene, it returns to average – sending students with projects that are mostly average, or they produce no entries at all.

What can we conclude from these examples? In the first case, one expects the occasional brilliant, self-motivated student to become passionate about their idea, do the work and produce an award-winning science project.

But what causes a cluster of students from one school to simultaneously produce projects that would be considered exceptional even at college-level? One could imagine that two or three students might do so out of competition; that’s exactly what occurred when I was a senior in high school. But what would cause such a burst of creativity and knowledge of scientific method and procedure year after year from the same school? The answer is: one exceptional teacher.

The proof of this hypothesis is that we’ve seen the trend follow individual teachers. The exceptional teacher motivates and inspires students for a period of years at one school, then moves to another school. The drop-off is immediate at the former school and the rise in quality of projects as immediate at their new school.

The only conclusion I can draw from this insight is that students who don’t have the benefit of the teacher who inspires and motivates them are missing out on opportunities, not only for a good education, but also for advancement and recognition.

In my personal experience, my family moved from a town where the school did not participate in science fairs to one that did. Doing a science fair project was a requirement for my science class. I had outstanding teachers who motivated me, provided encouragement and resources. Had it not been for them and the competitive spirit among my friends who also participated, I would not have had the opportunity to experience the science fair. After my first fair I was hooked. Also I wanted to win the four year University of Nebraska engineering scholarship. Because of the science fair I had the opportunity to display a project at Engineering Week at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. E-Week was the real eye-opener for me and gave me access to facilities and teachers that helped me to succeed. With their help I was able to win first place in Engineering at the International Science Fair and got the scholarship.

Nebraska has had more than its fair share of winners at the International Science and Engineering Fair over the last 40 years. Participating is well worth the time and effort of students, not only for what they learn but also for the scholarships, recognition and research opportunities. It’s a way to “get noticed” and advance their career.

On a larger scale, the teachers who motivate and inspire their students produce the scientists and engineers, doctors and researchers that the US so desperately needs now. We must not just remain competitive, we must excel in a highly competitive world. Parents and school boards need to seek out excellence in teachers and allow those teachers to inspire and motivate the next generation of scientists. In an age where emphasis is placed on “teaching to the test” we must realize that this strategy is doing a disservice to students and serious damage to the future of our economy and our country.

As a science fair judge, I’d love to see all students as excited and passionate about their chosen field of study as the few exceptional students we see each year. Based on what I’ve seen, I am convinced that all of them are capable of it. It is imperative that we provide them the resources and means to realize their dreams.