Coon Rapids science teacher wins mentorship award

Gary Alexander has a passion for all things scientific. With boundless energy and insatiable curiosity the Coon Rapids High School science teacher mentors like-minded students, his contagious passions fueling students’ study, energizing exploration and igniting life-long learning.

Coon Rapids High School physical science teacher Gary Alexander poses with his 2012 Seagate Science Mentor Award, one of dozens of awards he has received during his 15 years in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. Photo by Sue Austreng
Coon Rapids High School physical science teacher Gary Alexander poses with his 2012 Seagate Science Mentor Award, one of dozens of awards he has received during his 15 years in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. Photo by Sue Austreng

In addition to teaching science in the classroom for the past 16 years, Alexander has inspired and walked alongside countless high school students as they hypothesize and investigate, conduct tests and come to conclusions – some of the necessary steps involved in putting together a project for the science fair.

Last month, Alexander was named 2012 Seagate Technology Science Mentor Award winner, an award recognizing his practice of “going above and beyond, helping science students succeed in science,” said Lise Weegman, director of the Minnesota State Science and Engineering Fair competition.

The Seagate awards are a statewide recognition for teachers who have mentored student participants in regional science fairs across Minnesota. The awards recognize middle school and high school science teachers who have found creative ways to nurture students’ interest in scientific inquiry and promote science education in the schools.

Nominated by three of his students – sophomore Matt Lerdahl and freshmen Bradey Pahl and Jessie Hassebroek – Alexander was awarded $1,000 and a plaque. An additional $1,000 award and another plaque went to the CRHS science department.

Alexander plans to invest that money in student research materials, he said.

Lerdahl talked about what makes Alexander an award-worthy science teacher.

“As I ninth-grader I was not interested in the science fair at all … only did it because I had to, but even though I had (that attitude) Alexander helped me out and really got me interested in science,” Lerdahl said.

“I ended up taking home a bronze at the state science fair last year. He made a base for me for all these different sciences and now I’m taking honors chemistry and working on a three-year science fair project.”

“He’s a great teacher and he always helps out. He not only makes science fun, he incorporates these great stories – from his own life – into lectures at school and he really cares about his students. He’s a great teacher.”

While the Seagate Mentor Award recognition is nice, Alexander finds greater joy in his daily work with the students.

“The big plus is seeing students succeed,” he said. “That’s the most gratifying thing to me, to see them get hooked on science.”

Alexander’s love affair with teaching science began back in 1993 when his daughter progressed with her science fair project to the state level and Alexander had the opportunity to help judge the contest.

“I’ve always had a passion for science, but after the 1993 science fair experience, I really knew I wanted to work with students,” Alexander said.

And so, he went back to school to become a science teacher. He’s been at the head of the classroom and working alongside students ever since.

“I like the thrill of motivating students to do something. I just give ideas or direction, provide resources, but for the most part (science projects are) their baby,” Alexander said.

During his 16-year career teaching science, Alexander has invested many dollars and devoted countless after-school hours to his students’ scientific endeavors.

Not only that, Alexander has served high school science programs in various and sundry ways.

He’s been involved with the Minnesota Academy of Science, he’s served as executive director and director of the state science fair, he’s written grants, visited companies and won donations.

In fact, back in 2006 and 2007, Alexander even persuaded then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty to designate a specific day each year as Science Fair Day in Minnesota.

Not only that, Alexander has given presentations to the Central Regional Science Fair and to the International Science and Engineering Fair on the topic, “How participation in science fair affects student performance in the science classroom” (the subject of his master’s degree thesis).

What’s more, the president of the Society for Science and the Public asked Alexander’s permission to use parts of his thesis in an educational subcommittee presentation on science education in the nation’s capital.

“That really means a lot,” Alexander said.

In addition to fueling students’ passions for science, Alexander has mentored 62 students on to state science fair competition; 10 have advanced to the international science fair.

His students have “won countless special awards at the regional and state level,” Alexander said.

After his students exit the high school hallways, Alexander tracks their ambitions and has seen students earn degrees in sciences of all sorts and enjoying careers as engineers, medical doctors and more, continuing scientific passions rooted in his CRHS classroom.

The award-winning science teacher and mentor plans to continue teaching and mentoring until he retires, a day some four years in the future.

“This is what I love,” he said. “This is my passion. This is what I’ll do until I retire.”

Sue Austreng is at [email protected]

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