Local teacher receives presidential award for excellence

Jason Daniels (Image via Kenai Peninsula Borough School District)

Jason Daniels (Image via Kenai Peninsula Borough School District)

Encouraging students to become lifelong learners is what Jason Daniels strives to accomplish every day in his classroom. And people are taking note.

The K-Beach Elementary educator was nationally recognized for excellence in math and science instruction last week.

“I’m totally honored to have been selected,” Daniels said.

The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) are bestowed by the United States government to a maximum of 108 exemplary K-12 science, technology, engineering, math and/or computer science teachers every year. The awards were established by Congress in 1983, according to the PAEMST website.

Daniels grew up in a family of educators, which inspired his career path. His father was a science teacher in Seldovia after the couple moved to the Kachemak Bay area. After relocating to the central peninsula, his father served as the principal at Redoubt Elementary School and his mother taught at Mountain View Elementary School.

“I definitely think that they were mentors, and they inspired me to become a teacher,” Daniels said.

In particular, he said he remembers private science lessons with his dad in Seldovia.

“I got to check out the tide pools with dad. He was a marine science teacher there,” Daniels said. “So I had a pretty good experience with science and the natural world through him at an early age and just seeing them teaching over the years loving what they (were) doing.”

A graduate of Kenai Central High School, Daniels went on to the University of Idaho, Kenai Peninsula College and the University of Alaska Anchorage to get his bachelor’s degree. He then obtained his master’s from the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. Daniels also has his National Board Certification.

In addition feeling honored to receive the PAEMST award, he said the recognition is beneficial for him in his career.

“One of my former colleagues nominated me and it’s a big process — a lot of waiting and a lot of introspective, kind of analyzing, your own teaching,” Daniels said. “It’s just a pretty long process, but also a very good professional development experience.”

Recently, Daniels’ fifth and sixth grade classes at K-Beach Elementary finished their unit on Earth systems, placing particular emphasis on the geosphere and hydrosphere.

The kids were tasked with a real world problem: How do we ensure clean water is traveling through a supply line into the natural environment?

“Through the curriculum materials, and then just through discussions, they had come up with filters that could help to clean the water,” Daniels said. “They were trying, in teams, to come up with a filter design that would clean (the) dirty water.”

Another part of his class that piques the kids’ interest is something he calls “genius hour,” which is a time in which the students get to research a topic of their choosing.

“So about an hour a week or so, the students are working on researching their own personal passions — things that they’re really excited about,” Daniels said. “And then the rule is after your research you need to share it with the rest of the class.”

The “genius hour,” he said, encourages students to venture beyond their regular class assignments.

“That allows them to step out of the curriculum that we’ve got to teach them and that they are just allowed to use the tools that we have in the classroom to learn about things that they want to learn about to kind of personalize their learning,” Daniels said.

While the award blew Daniels away, he said many of his colleagues were equally deserving of the honor.

“I might have gone through this process, but I can easily name many other teachers that are deserving of this award,” he said. “We have such a great collection of teachers here in the school district that are just amazing and they’re doing great things in the classroom every day.”

Reach reporter Camille Botello at camille.botello@peninsulaclarion.com.

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