When Tara Dale's seventh-grade class was ushered into the hall for a "pod meeting" on the morning of Feb. 26 at Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School, she feared the worst.
"They told me it was something really bad," Dale said. "I thought it was like Sept. 11 all over again."
It wasn't until several minutes into the meeting after multiple speakers from the Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz) had mentioned the importance of science and math that Dale even considered the meeting was in her honor.
Dale was presented with SFAz's Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics' "Innovation Hero" Award, an honor that recognizes at least one teacher or student every month during the school year for their academic accomplishments in problem solving fields.
"What we are trying to do is help motivate students to get excited about science, technology, engineering and mathematics," Darcy Renfro, vice president of SFAz and director of STEM Initiative, said during the ceremony, "and the best way to do that is to have great teachers in the classroom that are engaging (students) and helping them build skills they will need for the careers of tomorrow."
Even though this particular Friday was not routine for Dale her daily classroom activities are far from traditional.
"I don't use textbooks and I don't teach for kids to memorize," she said, "I teach for kids to think."
Dale uses a variety of projects to supplement her students' lessons, including making volcanoes to learn about geology, letting students study the stars in an inflatable solar system, and having them explore the rainforest through her own collection of pictures taken during a college research trip to the Amazon; a method that her students appreciate.
"Instead of just reading out of the book all the time she does fun labs and that makes us understand it better," said 13-year-old Elizabeth Evan. "She's not a teacher that's boring; she's fun and real. The way she teaches makes you want to go to science. Some classes I dread but this one I'm always really pumped for."
Although excluding textbooks from the curriculum is unconventional, fellow seventh-grade teacher Dondi Caswell praises Dale on her innovative style.
"She's really unique because she thinks outside the box," Caswell, a math teacher who works alongside Dale, said. "A lot of people go into teaching and think, oh it's supposed to be done (a certain) way and Tara says ‘Why? We can do this, we can do it differently,' and she's just willing to do things that other teachers aren't. Sometimes it doesn't work and that's OK. She's not afraid to try something."
One of those projects that did work out was to find a recyclable pizza box.
"The pizza project is kind of my baby," Dale said about the random assignment she came up with two years ago to fill in some extra time during a class. After discovering that the grease and food residue left from the pizzas make the cardboard boxes non-recyclable, Dale had her seventh-graders try to develop a box that did not have this problem.
"I just said ‘Do whatever you want, do your own thing,' and that's actually when the kids surprise you the most," Dale said "I've found that the more restrictions you put on them the less productive they become, but if you give them complete freedom that's when they're really going to surprise you. At first they are kind of nervous about it because they are so used to rules and restrictions and boundaries but once they get going, oh my gosh, they start doing things you never even would have imagined yourself."
The kids were broken up into an advertising department, communications department, engineering department and research department, similar to the way a business is set up, and eventually did find a way to make an entirely recyclable pizza box. The only hiccup was that it caused the crust to be less crispy.
At the end of the experiment Dale invited a number of local pizzerias to hear a presentation by the students on their environmentally friendly boxes. Not only was the feedback positive, many company executives said that if the crust issue could be solved they would be happy to cover extra costs and use the recyclable box in their businesses. The surprising reaction not only excited Dale, but her co-workers as well.
"With the pizza box thing, you know it was a reach to think that anything was really going to come of that," Akimel A-al Principal Ernie Brodersen said, "because it's just hard to make ideas work, but she had executives from all the pizza companies come in and they were all fired up about this idea."
Dale's unique and quirky projects encouraged her students to test their limits and reach for the stars, a concept that Dale is not afraid to follow herself.
In addition to attending a NASA space camp for teachers in Houston, Dale also took a class offered to Arizona teachers that gets them "moon rock certified" and allows educators to bring meteorites and moon rocks into the classroom.
"When she brought those moon rocks she was beside herself with enthusiasm about getting these things," Brodersen said. "She was so excited, it was like a four-year-old on Christmas, and she was just beyond herself. And she brings that to the classroom all the time."
That out-of-this-world experience is what inspired her former student, Daniel Lawrence, to nominate her as an "Innovative Hero."
"That night gave me the chance to see something incredible," Lawrence wrote in an essay to SFAz, "and our teacher made us feel special by giving us that opportunity. She taught us beyond the chapters in the textbook. She didn't just tell us science was cool, she proved it. But it wasn't so much the rocks themselves that left an impression on me, as it was the lengths to which our teacher had gone to obtain them."
This was not the first time Dale has been recognized for her skills with students. She was previously honored as Tempe School Credit Union Educator of the Year. In addition to all that she does in the classroom, Dale also runs the Science Club and a recycling group at Akimel A-al. With all of these accomplishments under her belt it is hard to believe that Dale has only been teaching for four years.
Her road to teaching was almost as untraditional as her methods. While she was earning a bachelor's degree in biology and another one in psychology at Arizona State University, Chase Bank offered tuition reimbursement, flexible schedule and free on-campus covered parking to employees. The opportunity was too good to pass up.
"I knew I'd wanted to teach, but I'd have to go to school even more and I'd already spent six or seven years getting those first two degrees and was like, ‘Yeah, I need a break,'" Dale said.
After spending several years in the financial world she returned to school to peruse her passion.
"I remember when we interviewed her," Brodersen said. "We though that she had good people skills and was in teaching for the right reasons, a genuine passion for her subject and a passion for the opportunity to work with kids.
"She doesn't mind one bit being a goofy science geek if that's what the situation calls for, she makes no apologies for that, but she's also very hip and very in tune with kids and a very down-to-earth person along with that over-the-top love for science."
But as much as Dale's inspiration for science inspires her kids, it is the students that inspire her most.
"I know every teacher says this, but it's so true, this is why we're teachers, what drives us is watching the kids get excited."
• Whitney Begin is a student at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.