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Murray Journal

Making connections in science critical to award-winning teacher’s approach

Feb 03, 2023 10:25AM ● By Julie Slama

Murray High science teacher Aaron Daniels was named Utah Science Outstanding Physics Educator by the Utah Science Teaching Association. (Photo courtesy of David Vala)

Working to provide students’ thinking and application of science through individual discovery is what Murray High science teacher Aaron Daniels does, so when he was nominated for the Utah Science Outstanding Physics 2022 Educator of the Year award, he shared his approach to teaching both in and outside of the classroom.

On a given day, students will have hands-on opportunities. A couple times each term, he sets up lab stations with about a dozen quick, simple experiments as an opportunity to learn.

“Our class is lab-based and approached conceptually so students get real-world application of physics principles,” he said. “They can make mistakes, retry and learn from those and from my immediate feedback.”

At one station, there’s a Styrofoam plate with a pie-shape cut out, resembling Pac-Man, but supposed to represent the moon. Students spin a ball bearing around the inside rim of the plate, where force will keep the ball moving in a circular motion, to learn which way the moon will go if earth’s gravity is suddenly switched off. 

In another activity, students stack four washers on top of another on a smooth surface. Then, he asks students to flick another washer at the bottom of the stack to predict what will happen. 

Another day, he will walk students to the nearby freight elevator “to see what happens” to their weight.

“I ask students to make predictions about if they’ll weigh more on the way up than they do on the way down,” Daniels said. “When you ride in the elevator, you’re not accelerating on the way up or way down except for the very beginning and end when it jerks on your stomach. So, in the middle on the way up or down, the scale is going to reach a real weight, but just when you slow down on the bottom, it’s going to be greater than your weight. As you start up, it’ll be greater than your weight, but when you get to the top and stop, it will be less. It’s a way they can experience and learn firsthand that you can’t separate inertia, momentum and acceleration.”

It’s a bit safer than how he learned those principles at age 15 when he crashed the new family car at five miles per hour into a brick mailbox two doors down from his house.

“It caused a lot of damage—new hood, new bumper, new quarter panel, new passenger door because that wouldn’t even open,” Daniels remembered. “But I learned that something that mass has got a ton of inertia. It takes a ton of force to stop something like that. You don’t have to be moving fast because it’s mass times velocity. So, I learned mass in motion is what momentum is. I share that story as they’re learning to drive for the first time to be aware and if they can learn that through me by hitting anything, then that’s a lot better. I just want them to connect how life experiences can teach them what they learn in class.”

Through his 19 years of teaching science, he has taken students on field trips and STEM career days and has coached students in both Vex robotics and Science Olympiad, even taking his team last year to Cedar City to compete at the state tournament. He also has coached science bowl teams.  

His students have learned to apply their knowledge of Newton’s three laws through an egg drop from not only the school’s football stadium bleachers, but also from the 60-foot sky ride at Lagoon when they host Utah State University’s annual physics day.  

It’s a way they can learn about force and the relationship between time and change as well as transfer of energy and energy conversion, Daniels said.

During physics day, students also can make a force sensor, then ride and calculate the velocity of the roller coaster to determine the G forces. That activity, he said, is always a favorite.

Another hands-on activity students look forward to participating in is the annual design-your-own boat with just cardboard and duct tape to paddle across Murray’s outdoor pool.

“I’m hoping they apply the engineering principles and the design process they learned,” Daniels said at last spring’s water test. “This one is a little more fun and a tradition at the end of the year.”

This year, students will learn physics through a “scrambler.”

“We’ll have a weight on either the car or on the ground that launches the car that only can be powered by a falling weight. Then, I’ll give them a random distance, and there will be an egg at the end. If they go too far, they break the egg, and that’s bad. They’re trying to get to the wall as fast as they can, as close as they can, but not break the egg,” Daniels said. “The thing I really like is engineering challenges. Some of the kids find it frustrating, because sometimes it doesn’t work the way they want it. But that’s part of the design and redesign of the engineering process.”

The Utah Science Teaching Association’s crystal science award now sits on the desk of the educator, who was inspired by his own marine biology teacher to pursue the profession, and now finds passion in teaching environmental science, biology, physical science, human biology, physics with technology and other physical and life science courses and Advanced Placement classes in addition to physics. He has taught science to students at Murray High and in Casper, Wyoming in his career after earning his bachelor’s degree in biology and physical science from Brigham Young University and his master’s degree in education from Western Governor’s University.

Outside of class, Daniels keeps current on teaching and science through professional development conferences, collaborating and mentoring his peers and in 2019, being selected as part of a 14-member science educator team for a STEM transatlantic outreach program in Germany.

He said the award has been a “pretty cool recognition. Being a teacher is more than a job, it’s a lifestyle.”

“I like interacting with students. I like how learning broadens students’ view and it’s a kick in the pants to see kids do that,” he said, remembering when one of his Wyoming students took him up on an extra credit assignment to attend a Water Conservation Board public meeting related to his class. “He walks out at the end of that meeting and says, ‘Mr. Daniels, all the stuff we’re doing is real. That’s just like what we do in school.’ I had another student who had drug and other problems tell me to ‘pass me and I’ll get out of your hair.’ I told him to let me know when he wanted help, but he had to do the work. About five years later, he cleaned up, got a job as a mechanic and was going to buy a house. He came back to say, ‘Thank you for helping me graduate.’ Sometimes you don’t realize the difference you make in kids or in their lives, whether it’s immediate or later, but knowing you made that impact makes all the difference.”