NEWLAND — Avery High School science educator Coleman Bailey is the newest recipient of the North Carolina Science Math and Technology Center’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year award.
For the past 30 years, Bailey has passionately taught science to his students and instilled in them a fascination and love for the subject. Aside from being AHS’s chemistry instructor, he is also the school’s drama teacher and organizes productions for the students’ theater group, The Avery High School Players.
Faculty members from the NCSMTC visit schools across the state, observe classrooms, and interview candidates in order to determine the recipient. Bailey had been nominated for the honor by his former students and colleagues. It takes three nominations to be considered.
“I was really excited because I see it as a validation of what we’re doing in science in Avery County. And I see this as not just an award for myself, but for my students,” Bailey said.
Bailey recalls the day when one of the retired NCSMTC administrators visited his classroom to observe just what this multi-talented educator was teaching his students. By the end of the visitation, the administrator was so impressed, he stood in front of the room and informed the students that the projects they were completing were unlike anything he had seen in other chemistry classes in the state.
On that particular day, students were engaged in their own product analysis experiment where they were comparing the concentration of vinegar between store brand and name brand products to determine if the changes were due to price or other reasons. The class made a known solution of vinegar base and had come up with their own tests to figure out the various concentrations in the products.
“I teach science by doing, so we do a lot of labs in my room,” Bailey said. “But I also understand where my students are in life. I teach the juniors at our school, and this year we took a little bit of a break. I did ACT work with them and they learned how to write and express themselves in APA format for scientific papers. Some of these kids that are not 100-percent sold on going to college, which is great because they can go into other tech careers, but I want them to learn how to take information and figure out what’s true and what is not true and be a productive person.”
When Bailey moved to western North Carolina, his own children had been accustomed to competing in science fairs and research competitions. He noticed that the western region’s own science fair was dying off, so Bailey took it upon himself to revive it by becoming the director. Through his involvement, as well as a partnership with Appalachian State, the fair grew to become one of the largest in the state.
“I go out and work with not just Avery students but with surrounding counties. Since we don’t have the Research Triangle and the major universities up here, I try to level the playing field for what our young scientists are doing,” Bailey said.
As luck would have it, Bailey would also become involved with other organizations across the state associated with the university system. Bailey is a trainer for the Army Educational Outreach Program out of the science and math center at UNC-Charlotte. He also works with the director of the NC Science and Engineering Fair and is on the board of the NC Student Academy of Sciences.
Bailey’s experience and connections with scientific institutions across the state is indispensable to his own students in his classroom and allows them to experiment with their own budding curiosity. Last year, two of Bailey’s students studied whether Hispanic women were less likely to seek parental care due to the country’s political climate. Other students completed a research project on if the amount of children starting school with educational needs in Colorado had changed in the six years that the state had legalized marijuana. Another pair of students studied how elevation affects groundwater quality in private wells within the county.
Several of these students’ projects have won awards, including one in which Bailey and his students partnered with the Avery County Sheriff’s Department. For the project, the students wrote code so that microphones would pick up the sound of a gunshot if it was fired too close to a school zone. The sound would then automatically trigger the school’s intercom system to come on with a recording of the secretary saying “lock down, lock down.”
Bailey says that he started to get involved with the state’s science fairs to increase opportunities for the students. A couple of years ago, North Carolina placed six students in Genius Olympiad, an international science competition that takes place each June in New York. Two of these students came from the NC School of Science and Math, while the other four came from Avery High School.
Bailey believes that what his students lack in resources, they make up in creativity.
“When I see my kids walk in, I feel like the sky is the limit and I don’t want to discourage what they’re thinking about,” Bailey said. “A lot of them may not have found what clicks in education, and they go in there and start learning the science and doing these hands-on labs everyday, and when the research falls into it, it all comes together.”
With the importance school systems have placed on STEM fields in recent years, it is rare for teachers to seamlessly cross the boundaries between science and art. However, Bailey is not just well-rounded in the sciences, he is able to bring art through theater and drama into his teaching, making him not just a STEM teacher but a Science Technology Engineering Art and Math (“STEAM”) teacher.
Bailey’s father was a physics teacher for 53 years, while his mother was a music major as well as an educator and administrator for 37 years. Bailey says that the influence his parents had on him are what makes him able to bridge the gap between students’ interests.
“What I’m always amazed about is when one of my science kids decides to give the play a try and they have the time of their life. And when one of my theater kids decides to take up physics and they really like that too. I feel like it’s kind of cool to have a teacher bridge that. I really see the arts and sciences to be mind-engaging, which is what education should be about,” Bailey said.