KENAI — Jason Leslie is not a scientist.
He’s a professional artist, a second-generation teacher, a father and a new Alaskan, but doesn’t think of himself as a scientist.
“I think my strength as a science teacher is that I’m not a scientist,” he said. “I think that really helps me a lot with connecting with kids and connecting them to science. I’m just an artist that thinks science is really cool and I think that’s probably the biggest thing, I just kind of just have an innate excitement about science.”
Leslie, his wife and 3-year-old moved to Kenai from New Hampshire just before the start of the new school year and, he said, just in time for the end of the dipnet season.
“It was kind of funny, we showed up in town — when I got the job I flew up just to check the school and the town out — my wife and kid had never been down here. So when we pulled into town I was like ‘alright, I’m going to show them around,’” Leslie said. “We ran down to the beach and it’s just strewn with fish guts. My 3-year-old was all enamored with it — ‘Dad what’s that part, what is that his lungs?’ It was an interesting introduction for her.”
Leslie teaches kindergarten through sixth grade students at the Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Sciences, a charter school in Kenai.
This will be his second year teaching in a classroom, but he said he’s been teaching “in one capacity or the other” since 1998.
“I worked in the education department at a children’s museum. It was awesome,” Leslie said. “It’s a really neat kind of education too. The problem with teaching like that is that you don’t get those long term connections with kids. A lot of times these museums have pretty good resources but it’s different than getting to know kids for a full year or years.”
Leslie spoke from his classroom about a week before school started and said his first impressions were good.
“The person who had my job before me retired, but is sticking around to be the interim principal and she did an amazing job organizing the science supplies,” he said. “We’ve got our lab and then a whole other room. Supply closets can sometimes turn into disasters, but I can walk in here and there are shelves and everything is labeled.”
Leslie said he’s excited to be a part of the science, education, technology and math, or STEM, push in education and looks forward to getting his new students excited about those fields.
“I really love the engineering design process,” he said. “We figure out a problem we want to solve and we go through the steps of figuring that out. Along the way there’s all sorts of science and that’s my job as a teacher is to tack on the science while the kids are trying to figure out solutions.”
Part of getting kids excited about STEM is showing them real-world applications for the things they study.
“I did like math when I was in high school, but it was all completely abstract,” he said. “Very little was tied to real world applications, it was all just ‘let’s practice this a hundred times’ which is a good way to pass a test in a few weeks but it doesn’t necessarily stick with you.”
He’s also looking forward to turning the area just outside of the school into a classroom as well.
“Science supplies aren’t things you need to order from a catalog,” he said. “Let’s go for a walk on the nature trails.”
Leslie said working with such a wide age range of students would be a challenge.
“I think in kindergarten there’s a lot of wide-eyed ‘wow’ factor,” he said. “With kindergarten through second grade students, they’re already really good observers and that’s what science is about. They’ve been practicing their whole lives so we’re just talking about it in a formal setting.”
Leslie said part of his job would be to demystify science for younger students as well.
“Science is not this scary thing that happens in labs and you have to wear lab coats and goggles,” he said. “Although it is really fun to put kindergartners in lab coats and goggles.”
While Leslie’s excitement is palpable when he talks about teaching students about friction or introducing kindergartners to the scientific method, he considers himself an artist.
“I do lots of pen and ink drawings and where we used to live in Oregon was a very touristy area with well-known landmarks like Mt. Hood and the Columbia River,” he said. “I had a small business going where I would do little pen and ink landscape drawings and sell them as cards. I do some paintings too.”
Fortunately, Leslie said there was no shortage of landscapes in this area to hold his attention.
“I won’t run out of mountains to draw.”