For high school students, using an iPod in class is good way to end up in the principal’s office. But for teacher Aaron Sams, it was a good way to earn the attention of the president.
Yes, that president.
In June, the White House awarded Sams (’99, M.A. ’04) its prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching to honor his innovative use of technology in the classroom — including iPod-friendly videos designed to help his students learn more effectively.
The award is considered the highest recognition a kindergarten through 12th-grade mathematics or science teacher may receive for outstanding teaching in the United States. It was given to just 103 teachers nationwide this year.
“It’s been a humbling experience,” said Sams, who teaches chemistry at Woodland Park High School in Colorado. “I didn’t set out when I became a teacher to win teaching awards. I just wanted to do my job, do it well, do it to please the Lord, and this is where it took me.”
Three years ago, Sams committed to prerecording every lesson he taught. He began collaborating with his colleague Jonathan Bergmann to create video lectures — complete with demonstrations, photos and notes — that students could stream on a computer or load onto an iPod and take with them wherever they go.
As a result, Sams can use class time to work with the students one-on-one through areas they are struggling with and perform lab demonstrations with smaller groups of students, ensuring a better understanding of the material. With a library of chemistry videos, students can move through the videos at their own pace at home, receiving help along the way from Sams in class.
“Students can take these anywhere, even on a bus to a soccer game,” said Sams. “They can get their chemistry lesson and they essentially have a pause button for their teacher. They can pause, write down questions and come prepared.”
In addition to his feats in the classroom, Sams also served as chairman on a state committee throughout the year of 2009 to rewrite Colorado’s state academic standards.
He’s also been working with other teachers who want to follow his approach, especially in foreign language classes. He and Bergmann have led training workshops and set up a website to explain the benefits and how-tos of creating video lectures. The duo is currently in the process of writing a book about their teaching method that is currently slated to be released in late 2011.
“I think a student learning at their own pace and not moving on until they’ve demonstrated mastery of the content isn’t a new model of education,” said Sams. “However, new technology has made it more of a reality. If a kid has to show mastery of the content, the kid’s going to be more successful.”