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News >  K-12 education

Meet the North Central High School science teacher whose dedication nabbed him a statewide award

UPDATED: Tue., April 20, 2021

North Central High School science teacher Dan Shay poses April 13 with a MinION gene sequencer he acquired for his students through a Morning Star Foundation grant and a donation from Dan Roark.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
North Central High School science teacher Dan Shay poses April 13 with a MinION gene sequencer he acquired for his students through a Morning Star Foundation grant and a donation from Dan Roark. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

It’s become almost a cliché in education circles, the abstract promise to “meet kids where they are.”

North Central High School science teacher Dan Shay has taken the vow literally – even during the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since October, he’s met his students in the school parking lot every day beginning at 6 a.m. and escorted them into class.

He’s also met them at their homes, delivering materials essential for home experiments. For that and other feats, Shay was recently honored as the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair’s Teacher of the Year.

“It’s a big trophy,” Shay said. “But honestly, for me it was the students who nominated me – that’s what means the most.”

The necessities forced by COVID-19 have led to plenty of inventiveness on the part of Shay and his students.

More than year ago, as students were banished to their homes, Shay felt as helpless as everyone else.

“I didn’t know what to do,” said Shay, who like many colleagues went old-school and led his students through Jamie Metzl’s book, “Hacking Darwin,” which deals with genetic engineering.

“I felt like I did the right thing, but didn’t do a good job of it,” said Shay, who knows enough about biology to realize that, at best, the 2020-21 school year would begin on a hybrid model.

As it turned out, most the year has been spent in remote learning – less than ideal for all subjects and even more challenging for science.

But Shay was prepared. Last spring, he found a way to join a committee NC dedicated to making the distance learning model as fruitful as possible.

Then he did his homework, reading four books over the summer. The result was an approach that was flexible enough for synchronous or asynchronous learning.

It also had to be equitable – no small feat when microscopes and other high-priced learning tools must remain in the building.

By October, with COVID-19 metrics getting worse, Shay petitioned to allow groups of five students each to work at the lab.

The petition was granted, but with challenging conditions.

Senior Meilin Scott and her father rose to the challenge by crafting 120 face shields, and Shay took it from there.

In what must have been a surreal experience, he arrived at the parking lot every morning at 6 and met his students, who wore masks under their face shields. They also wore rubber gloves and buttoned their collars as Shay led them through the empty halls.

One hour later, Shay would lead the first group out the door and welcome a second cohort. For late risers, he also offered a 3 p.m. session and even a few on weekends.

“This year has been especially difficult,” said Scott, one of the students who nominated Shay for the statewide award. “But he has helped us do our research in the lab … I feel very grateful that he’s my teacher.”

For that, they can also thank Shay’s high school wrestling coach in Illinois, who preached that “sometimes you just have to get out of bed a little bit earlier.”

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