Craig Beals, a teacher at Billings Senior High with a knack for making science relevant, was selected Monday as the 2015 Montana Teacher of the Year.
The award is given to one educator each year who exemplifies the best in the profession and is sponsored by the Montana Professional Teaching Foundation.
“I’m incredibly honored,” Beals, 35, said.
The earth sciences and chemistry teacher brings a background of research to his classroom, having participated in field projects on the ice sheets of Greenland and the Mongolian steppe. He has degrees in biology and science education from Montana State University as well as a master’s degree in zoology from Miami University in Ohio.
In selecting Beals for the award, the foundation pointed to creative ways in which he blends learning with the application of science to educate students.
Beals said he frequently hears from students who wonder why chemistry, a notoriously difficult subject, is taught in high school.
“I thought it was a really good question,” he said.
So a few years Beals cooked up a project, called “The Chemistry of …,” that allows students to pick anything as their topic, then apply the concepts they learn to better understand how that substance works or how it’s produced.
The students post their final reports, including videos, to the class webpage. Other students and curious Web searchers from around the world began finding their research, and the site has been viewed more than 100,000 times, to Beals’ surprise.
“They’re teaching the world about chemistry. That’s powerful,” he said.
Beals’ students have learned about the chemistry of coffee by roasting raw green beans and collecting data, and they once designed and built the largest cardboard geodesic dome planetarium in the world.
Beals also created the Earth Science Community Action Project, which allows students to use their science skills to assist in projects that help the Billings community.
“He is an exceptional teacher,” said Senior High Principal Dennis Holmes. “He provides rigor for the students, and the students certainly step up and meet the challenge because of the relationships he develops with kids.”
Beals spotlighted one method for connecting with students in a recent TedxBozeman lecture titled “Can technology (re)humanize us?”
When students enter his classroom, they sign in using an iPad app that keeps track of daily attendance — both physically and emotionally. The app, the brainchild of Beals, also asks students how they’re feeling on a scale from 0-100.
He has found students tend to be more candid when using the app. The information allows him to reach out to those students who may not be ready to perform their best on a given day.
“It’s completely transformed how I look at my students,” Beals said. “It reminds me every day that these kids have real lives, and real issues.”
He hopes to one day make the attendance app available to any teacher.
Beals’ globe-trotting scientific fieldwork has taken place during his time as an educator. Just last summer, he worked on a grant to monitor environmental changes in the Beartooth Mountains related to climate change. Beals continues to teach graduate courses for Miami University, leading students to conversation hotspots around the world.
Some of his high school students think Beals is crazy for staying in the classroom, Beals said, but added that teaching has proven to be a good fit.
“It’s nice to be able to still do work in science, but I get to interact with young people and share my passion with them,” he said. “I dont even think of it as a job. It’s a hobby that takes a lot of work.”
Eric Feaver, who serves as chair for MPTF, said he is impressed by Beals’ accomplishments, especially given his relatively short, 10-year tenure in the profession.
One of Beals’ references for the award, Feaver said, was a fellow teacher with a decade more experience who described him as a professional mentor.
“He’s right there on the cusp of an incredible career,” Feaver said.
Past Teacher of the Year winners have gained national reputations for their work, Feaver said.
“Craig Beals has already traveled around the world, and I have every expectation that he’ll have an opportunity to travel more and be an ambassador of sorts for Montana teachers,” he said.
Beals is a Billings native and Skyview graduate. He and his wife, Christi, have two children. He takes over as teacher of the year for 2014 winner Anna Baldwin, a high school English and history teacher at Arlee High School.
Finalists for the award were Tony Riehl, a math teacher at Skyview High School, and Casey Olsen, an high school English teacher in Columbus.
Other recent Teacher of the Year winners from Billings include Eileen Sheehy (2013) and Steve Gardiner (2008).