Science isn’t always an automatic student magnet, but John Hesser showed that he knows how to get scholars geeked and engaged during one of his earth science classes at Harshman Middle School.

Earth science is the study of the planet’s physical characteristics, including earthquakes, fossils and floods. So, unlike in life science classes (which Hesser also teaches), students don’t get to dissect frogs or pig brains. But they do get to make oobleck! You know, that non-Newtonian fluid that acts both as a liquid and a solid. Yeah, that oobleck!

During one of the last classes of the 2018-19 school year, Hesser’s earth science students learned the chemical formula for oobleck and started their group experiments — using water, food coloring, cornstarch and sandwich bags. It was a lesson in measurements, science and teamwork.

The hands-on assignment also helped shift the negative attitudes that some of his seventh-grade students brought with them into class that day. However, it wasn’t just that shape-shifting oobleck that turned things around.

Hesser has a knack for drawing students in, almost like a student whisperer, and has the accolades to back up his skills.

In May, he was named 2019’s Outstanding Earth Science Teacher of the Year for Indiana by the National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT). Pretty good for someone who had his sights set on teaching high school, not middle school students.

“For a lot of teachers, middle school can be a scary age because hormones are all over the place and developmentally they’re all over the place,” said Hesser. “We know from research that, cognitively, a middle schoolers’ progression is not linear; it dips and spirals and centers. But, also, no one is their best self in middle school. No one looks on their middle school years and goes, ‘seventh grade, that’s when I really killed it. I was really awesome.’”

Hesser seems to have gotten over his initial fears.

The NAGT award is given to Grade K-12 educators who provide “exceptional contributions to the stimulation of interest in the Earth Sciences at the pre-college level.” He was nominated by Shari Thomas, a STEM teacher and colleague at Harshman. The NAGT selection committee concurred.

“The committee was particularly impressed with his innovative instructional strategies incorporating movement and choice into his earth science teaching,” according to a NAGT press release.

Simply put, Hesser doesn’t welcome students into class and require them sit the entire period.

“One of the things I try to acknowledge is that attention span is a huge obstacle and students already spend too much of their day sitting. So, any way that we can shake things up, we need to, and science lends itself well to that,” said Hesser. “There are times we’ll do standing notes, gallery walks, or interactive thoughts — where you put your thoughts on a sticky note and then place it on the wall, the windows.”

For Hesser, who graduated from Ball State University with a degree in biology, movement goes beyond tapping into students’ learning styles. It’s about “getting their blood pumping and getting the blood to where it needs to go, and getting your brain working. If we can have our students moving around when we can, I think that pushes them to be engaged.”

He starts each class with a countdown, a signal that tells students things are about to begin. The countdown allows Hesser to create order but, most importantly, to gauge the room and figure out “who will be my touch points? Who do I need to talk to for a hot second? Who’s having a bad day?”

Like most teachers, Hesser has high expectations for everyone in his class. Yet he understands that allowing for flexibility in how students meet those expectations is key.

“Students aren’t robots,” he said. “No student comes to school not wanting to do well. No student starts the day by saying, ‘I really want to be a mess and not learn anything.’”

Hesser believes the relationships teachers have with their students and being able to leverage those relationships are what allow educators to push students to challenge themselves.

“I’m going to get them there,” he said, confidently.

Although achieving at a high level, Hesser believes he has more to give. “I can still do better with my classroom to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to find success and show their strengths. That’s something I’m still working on,” he said.

As for the Outstanding Earth Science Teacher Award, it comes with a plaque, a membership to the National Association of Geology Teachers, a story in the fall Earth Science magazine, and $100. Hesser plans to use the money to go out to dinner, or maybe pay for the supplies needed for the oobleck experiment.

Either way, he’s grateful for the recognition.

“In teaching, especially at the end of the year, we get tired. So, it’s always nice to know when someone sees you for the hard work that you’re putting in to it,” said Hesser. “At its core, that feels really good, and it’s nice to feel recognized.”