Science around the house: Houston High teacher nominated for Alaska Teacher of the Year

Steve Hall is a nominee for the 2018 Alaska Teacher of the Year. He’s a high school science teacher at Houston High School. (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

The State Department of Education will pick Alaska’s teacher of the year next month.

This week we’ll have profiles of each of the five finalists, from across the state.

Steve Hall is a math and science teacher at the high school in the Mat-Su town of Houston. Hall’s style of teaching emphasizes a lot of hands-on learning.

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Growing up in small-town Wisconsin, Hall joked that one of the few ways to apply science in the area was to be a veterinarian working with dairy farmers. His passion for science was always a little different.

“I just was really good at it and enjoyed it a lot,” Hall said. “I’ve got a couple uncles that were, if you will, rocket scientists for 3M, and so I think I just got predisposed to that kind of field.”

Hall says he found his calling as a teacher when he was in the army, where he learned just how valuable effective teaching could be.

“There was a grenade safety course that was being taught by a sergeant, and he forgot to mention the secondary safety pin,” Hall said. “And so, he got dropped for push-ups, and I thought, ‘If I ever have to teach something like that, I’m gonna have a diagram or something.’ And so, sure enough, I had to teach that course, and I had my diagram. I really enjoyed that.”

After his service, Hall went to college for his teaching degree and taught for five years near his hometown. But after budget and staffing cuts, he started looking for a job somewhere else. His wife’s sisters had settled down in Houston, Alaska and suggested he apply for jobs there. He says when he got to Houston in 2003, he knew it was the place for him.

“Oh, I loved it. The hunting, the fishing,” Hall said. “I said to my mother-in-law, ‘I’m home now.'”

When Hall first arrived in the Valley, he taught at Palmer Junior High, but was soon hired at the brand new Houston High School.

The Department of Education highlighted Hall’s extensive use of labs in his lessons as one of the reasons he was selected as a Teacher of the Year nominee. Hall says these activities help his students see where chemistry fits into their everyday lives.

“We talk about what things are going on around the house,” Hall said. “So if you’re mixing oil and gas, and you have to go 50-50, why do they mix? So you can talk about solubility of different liquids. Same with antifreeze, stuff like that. We also make ice cream, so we can make it fun — food science.”

Hall is also a strong advocate for making sure every student in his classes is actively involved in the coursework. He teaches kids at a variety of levels, from his beginner classes to his Advance Placement courses, and he pushes all of them to work to their potential.

“What I’ll do when we’re doing an activity is get all the kids to participate, to learn it,” Hall said. “I’m like, ‘You’re not walking through that door ’til you know XYZ. And then, once they see that success, they keep working at it, so they can understand it. And then you get the application.”

Hall has been teaching for over 20 years, so long in fact, that a former student of his now teaches biology at Houston High.

“It’s good. It makes me feel a little old, but that’s alright,” Hall said.

Between his work with the recently started AP Chemistry class, to his technology-infused inquiry labs, Hall says he’s happy when his students go out into the world contributing to society and understanding the importance of science in everyday life.

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