As a tike, Scott Davidson wanted to be an astronaut. Fascinated by the solar system, he imagined himself wearing a space suit and exploring the outer reaches of the known universe.
But life doesn’t always turn out like you imagine, and today Davidson teaches math and science at Rim Country Middle School. Davidson happens to be quite good at his job, where he explores the furthest reaches of the adolescent mind.
The Arizona Rural Schools Association recently named Davidson the rural teacher of the year for Gila County, which makes him a finalist for the state rural teacher of the year.
Davidson, 35, has taught in Payson for the past decade. He teaches science to seventh-graders in addition to a gifted class that combines math and science. Davidson also leads the middle school outdoor adventure club, which he takes on monthly field trips like mountain biking at Mormon Lake.
In the classroom, Davidson tries to make topics relevant. Gravity, for example, is a cool concept for about five minutes. But the latest research investigates the effect of gravity on viruses.
Davidson says that adding the cutting edge to a traditional lesson grabs kids’ attention.
For instance, what is the impact of space on various viruses? The findings have implications for astronauts because zero gravity increases the ferocity of some viruses, while quieting others.
Or what happens to gravity inside a black hole? “That’s something that excites the heck out of kids because it’s weird. It doesn’t make sense,” said Davidson.
Davidson believes in taking students on field trips to help science come alive. Rural students are sometimes disadvantaged because traveling to places like Arizona State University from Payson takes more time, money and perseverance than traveling there from, say, Mesa, said Davidson.
“For us, it takes some doing,” he said. Especially in this down economy, schools have fewer funds available and students must often pay for gas money themselves.
Fortunately, both of the science teacher’s parents work at ASU, and so he enjoys more access than other teachers.
“I am kind of known in the district as the guy who does field trips,” said Davidson. “I want kids to be excited about science and I want them to see what is going on.”
Principal Gary Witherspoon, who nominated Davidson, called him “enthusiastic” and “highly knowledgeable.”
Last year, Davidson’s students participated in ASU’s MARS project, which allowed students to take pictures of the planet from ASU using a camera installed on an orbiting spacecraft. Leading up to the day, students completed a series of lessons about the planet.
Davidson has applied to participate in the project again, but changes in the program’s leadership have made its future uncertain.
However, his class will soon visit the Petrified Forest and a nearby meteor crater so students can learn about the geology of those areas.
Davidson says that science’s power lies in its connection to other subjects — with geology, for instance.
In his STEM class, gifted students take a combined math and science class, and Davidson challenges himself to continually find connected topics, and often times must write his own curriculum because none exists.
For example, the kids have built catapults, which requires engineering calculations.
“The best learning usually takes place when students have firsthand experience,” said Davidson.
To expand future opportunities, Davidson is looking into virtual field trips.
For instance, one company offers a virtual excursion where a diver takes special equipment as he explores Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Students watch, and can even ask questions.
He also believes that the classroom should be a comfortable and safe learning environment.
“Sometimes that makes a problem for discipline,” Davidson shrugged and smiled, “when they’re a little too comfortable,” but kids generally behave for him and feel comfortable asking questions, which also increases learning.
Davidson says that part of a teacher’s job is developing future leaders. And so, for example, he has invited responsible high school students who used to participate in the middle school’s adventure club to come on field trips. Davidson bestows the students with leadership responsibilities.
The young leaders sometimes offer Davidson friendly reminders. If for example, he loses track of time, his students will sometimes shout, “Hey, Davidson. It’s time to go.”
Or, the older students will help keep the younger students in line.
“I really appreciate having students like that,” said Davidson.