Walk into Jeff Karlin’s classroom at Lewiston High School and it’s like walking into another world. There’s a variety of mounted animals, skulls, a fish aquarium, solar system, and his version of a chalkboard – a large semi-circle clear plastic sheet that he stands inside of and writes backwards on so it’s clearly readable for his students.
No, this isn’t your everyday average classroom, but then Karlin, a 1994 graduate of LCSC, is not your everyday average teacher.
Karlin teaches a set of unique courses at LHS, including Marine Biology, Physics, Zoology, and Astronomy. “I get to teach from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the cosmos every day,” as he puts it. “That’s been my mantra. I get to do that. It has afforded me incredible opportunities and I’m fortunate to have them.”
The incredible opportunities he speaks about include several things, but the biggest has been involvement with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He has been a participant in the NASA FINESSE Spaceward Bound program for several years and was recently honored for being one of the top science instructors in the state of Idaho. He is one of three Idaho teachers to earn the distinction and is eligible for the National Presidential Award for Excellence for teaching in math and science.
“We all hope people are looking at what we’re doing, but as a teacher, we never expect things like this,” Karlin says. “This was just one really amazing time that I was noticed among the 20 years I’ve been doing this. There are other excellent teachers that I would give this award to.”
Karlin said he knew he wanted to be a teacher, more specifically a science teacher, while he was taking a science class 10th grade in the classroom that he now teaches in.
“My father is a cop and he told me if it’s not a calling, if you can’t see doing this until you die, then you are in the wrong job,” Karlin says. “I never made any forays into anything else. From 10th grade in this classroom I knew I was going to be a science teacher. I didn’t know where it would take me, but I knew I would be a science teacher.”
Karlin was a standout wrestler during high school and actually was planning to attend Eastern Washington University and wrestle there, but the school dropped the wrestling program before Karlin enrolled and he chose LCSC instead.
“After one semester, I had courses with (professors) Jerry Baker and Tom Urquhart, I knew I never wanted to be any place else,” Karlin says. “LCSC has given me more ability as a teacher than any other single location that I have spent time at. I am proud of that.”
Karlin earned two degrees from LCSC, one in Secondary Education for Natural Science and the other in Natural Science.
“They have darn fine teachers,” Karlin says. “It wasn’t until I worked for NASA that I found a person smarter than Tom Urquhart. And that was 20 years of me looking really hard, too. I’m lucky to have spent my time at LCSC.”
Karlin says one of his favorite classes was a two-credit course from Dr. Baker where he went to the Oregon Coast and sat in a tide pool and studied sea urchins.
“If you didn’t like it, you would never like it, but if you liked it a little, you love it for life,” Karlin says of the experience. “In the field, I never knew how much I enjoyed being down in the dirt and muck, basically teasing out the science that we don’t know yet from that natural world.”
Because of his love of learning and always pushing himself, Karlin wound up in the NASA’s Spaceward Bound program through the Idaho Space Consortium. The Spaceward Bound program trains the next generation of space explorers by having students and teachers participate in the exploration of scientifically interesting but remote and extreme environments on Earth as analogs for human exploration of the moon and Mars. It also helps that southern Idaho is home to Craters of the Moon, which NASA uses to simulate the moon and Mars. It’s also where Karlin has spent time at during the summers working with NASA
“I had some opportunities that led to other opportunities and what arose from that is NASA realized that I’m a worker and they needed some work done,” Karlin says. “We are studying Martian analog sites. We are in the first stages of what scientists and astronauts will be doing on the Martian surface.
“What they do is put us in the field and we take data and confer with the scientists. They give us the information they need and we go out and get it. This year I will be deployed to two locations by NASA as the stand-in astronaut. So I will be a simulation astronaut at the Craters of the Moon and also at the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii. And then in August, I will be at another analog site studying terrain.”
Karlin says he’s very grateful for the experience because, as he says, he gets to work with the “rock stars in my field.
“These amazing scientists don’t have to deal with a teacher plunked into their study but they are really gracious and helpful,” Karlin says. “What I get out of it is that I’m like a sponge and try to bring back every little bit of information and then disseminate to my classes and students. They get more up to date science information than most high school students in the nation, at least in this field.”
Karlin uses that enthusiasm in his classroom as well. He pushes for the students to be active in class, which is why he takes such a hands-on approach.
“I think classical education is a bad term because it means to me sit down, shut up and listen,” he says. “I teach differently. I let any student retake any test they want. If they get a 99 percent and they want 100 percent, then knock yourself out. The reason is it’s not about my ego. Education is a process.
“I hope to inspire. I am a big control theorist. William Glasser’s control theory says that I can’t make you do anything but if I can be motivated for me, and I have excitement for what I do, then hopefully you will tap into that. I hope the students are willing to go on that journey with me and see what science has to offer.
“I love what I do and everything that I do in science comes back to my experiences at LCSC. These are professors who used the small college as a way to tell me that I have a great opportunity that I didn’t have at bigger schools, but I have to go out and find it. I really enjoyed LCSC and put what I learned to use every day.”