It might be his magnetism. Or his energy. Or it might be the way he makes students overcome their inertia about learning physics, but Dean Baird excels in the classroom.
This was recognized in June when Baird won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. It is the highest honor the U.S. government can bestow on a K-12 science teacher. Winners receive $10,000.
A year after he began the rigorous nomination process, Baird was notified of his award on June 11. He flew to Washington to receive his award on June 26.
The little-known but prestigious science award is given to high school and middle school teachers from every state every other year.
“The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching are the Nation’s highest honors for teachers of mathematics and science,” according the PAEMST web site, which is run by the National Science Foundation. “Awardees serve as models for their colleagues, inspiration to their communities, and leaders in the improvement of mathematics and science education.”
Upon receiving his award in Washington, Baird met Vice President Joe Biden and Second Lady Jill Biden, who is a teacher herself. Traditionally the president meets with the finalists, but President Obama was in Colorado at the time.
“He stuck around to shake everyone’s hand, all one hundred of us,” Baird said. “That’s something we wouldn’t have gotten if it’d been the president.”
The Bidens spoke to the finalists for several minutes, telling them how important they are to helping the country’s students. Winners also spent three days meeting with staff of the Department of Education.
Baird received the award because of his thorough teaching practices and the results he gets with his students. His teaching style sets high standards, while keeping regular physics a “big tent class” that most students can succeed in.
“I want to make Physics the most challenging class that students want to come to,” he said.
Both Physics and AP Physics are filled with labs and demonstrations designed to bring the concepts in the book into the real world.
Baird also incorporates a lot of technology in the class to help students learn in a way they’re used to.
“I get to use a lot of my own creativity when designing the curriculum to see students interacting with each other and with the curriculum,” Baird said.
His students especially recognize the time and effort he puts into teaching.
Senior Nate Sure who has Baird for AP Physics appreciates Baird’s methodical teaching style.
“His teaching is systemic and well organized,” Sure said. “You are put in control of your learning and get out what you put in.”
Baird carries his positive attitude into the class, often incorporating stories and humor to lighten the class and connect with his students.
Even outside of class, he shows enthusiasm about the subject and teaching.
Baird, who graduated from the University Michigan in 1986, has taught Physics and Advanced Placement Physics for more than 25 years at Rio. Students at Rio and physics teacher around the world access Baird’s curriculum materials through the “Phyz” website he established in the 1990s.
He also shares ideas and analysis of physics teaching issues on his blog, “The Blog of Phyz.”
His students have introduced thousands of elementary school students to physics through the school’s annual “Exploratorio.”
All the extra things Baird does come back to make his classes the best he can and the pleasure he takes in teaching.
“The best part, I think is seeing students understand things that they didn’t understand before and playing an active role in getting them there,” Baird said.