Arts & Culture » Culture

Science Class with Mr. Goff

One high-school teacher gets creative to spark interest in his students


Standing against a long row of lockers, 15-year-old Snow White was wearing a tie and black skinny jeans, her long hair the color of a galaxy—a swirl of purple, blue, green and pink. She was explaining static electricity to the longest-serving television meteorologist in Boise, Larry Gebert. Several small balloons clung to her hair and tie as she spoke.

"I wanted to do this experiment because I thought it would be fun," White told Gebert. "And it was."

Her science project explored how and why static electricity causes some objects to stick to hair. Her project poster was covered with pictures of her cats, their fur standing straight up and balloons stuck to them.

Gebert, who has stood in front of a camera and green screen at KTVB Channel 7 delivering the morning weather report for a quarter of a century, asked White a series of questions. When she couldn't answer them, he filled in the blanks.

After White finished her presentation, Gebert walked along the halls of Mountain View High School, stopped constantly by excited teenagers wanting to take selfies with him.

"It happens everywhere I go," he said. "Grocery shopping takes hours."

Gebert visited the high school to be part of the ninth-graders' semester-long project on Jan. 14. The event took place in the evening, but none of the 75 students and their friends seemed to care about being at school after hours. They ran around the halls with cupcakes and sodas, and occasionally talked a little science.

"All semester, my students have developed their own questions—any question they wanted to answer about weather science," said Samuel Goff, a science teacher at Mountain View. "Once they developed that question, they used the scientific method. They developed an experiment and compiled data. They analyzed it and wrote a scientific paper. Now, they're presenting their posters."

Goff wanted to up the excitement among his students, so he invited Gebert as well as Vin Crosby—the former meteorologist at KBOI-TV—and a handful of meteorologists from the National Weather Service in Boise, the superintendent of the West Ada School District and several professors from Boise State University.

"I said, 'Listen kids, I invited these strangers to dialogue with you because they need to know what you're doing. It's real science,'" Goff said.

Goff's teaching style is off-kilter compared to his colleagues. He said most teachers go through a lecture, demonstrate an experiment and give their students a worksheet to fill out. That's not how he does it.

"Five years ago, I thought I was a good teacher because I could do that dog-and-pony show, because I could capture their attention," he said. "I had to fundamentally take a deeper look at what it means to teach. I want my students to do science. It's an incredible way to get kids to think deeper."

Goff, 39, hasn't had the most conventional teaching career. His first job put him in the classroom at Intermountain Hospital, back when the psychiatric treatment center had a residential unit for adolescents.

He described it as a "horror movie," with young teenage girls picking up desks and throwing them across the room. He left that job after a year and moved to Mountain View, where he taught earth science for three years. He left to take a job at East Junior High, then at Centennial, then a job that fundamentally changed the way he thought about teaching—he became a founding teacher at the Alzar School in Cascade in 2012.

The school takes high-school students from all over the country for one semester, with a curriculum made up of Advanced Placement classes interspersed with kayaking, backpacking, hiking, skiing and a six-week expedition to Chile.

"I've never had a harder, more rigorous, more challenging job in all my life," Goff said. "It was an amazing job, but I'm too old for it. My body couldn't handle sleeping in a sleeping bag 120 days a year."

Finally, he landed back at Mountain View, where he's taught for three years. He teaches three classes of earth science and three classes of chemistry and has almost 200 students.

With a black band tattooed around his forearm and a love for extreme whitewater kayaking, Goff said his students usually don't know what to think of him at first. His are not classes in which students get away with being complacent.

"I'm making them act like scientists in the real world," Goff said, "but it takes a lot of risk on my behalf because I get a lot of pressure from my administration. We have to do this certain curriculum. ... But this way, [my students] turn into real people and they have engagement and a goal they're trying to accomplish and they're doing something real."

Larry Gebert still remembers the first science project that sparked his interest.

"I was in seventh grade, age 12," Gebert said. "My teacher brought in a generator. One student cranked it and another touched it and we all held hands around the classroom. We felt the shock go through all of us."