Ms. Tracey Dodrill
7th Grade Science Teacher
Cocopah Middle School / Scottsdale Unified School District
You’ve heard the adage, “The sky’s the limit?” Tracey Dodrill doesn’t think that’s a lofty enough goal. The NASA Ambassador and seventh grade science teacher at Cocopah Middle School in Scottsdale’s Unified School District tells her students to forget the sky—set your sights on the universe.
It’s that kind of attitude and determination that Dodrill says kept her going when life threw her a few curve balls. Growing up, she had always been enthralled with science and astronomy and wanted to become an astronaut.
“But, I’m very tall and have poor eyesight,” she laughs. “So, I went into computer science instead. After having all of my programs crash again and again, I thought, ‘Do I really want to do this for the rest of my life? No.’”
So, Dodrill decided to enter the media and public relations field. She served as a public information officer for various Florida law enforcement agencies for more than 15 years before life threw her yet another curve ball. She and her husband had fostered and adopted two special needs children. A short time later, Dodrill faced a major upheaval in her life and career with an unexpected divorce. As a single mom, she had to think about what to do next to best support her children and herself.
“I had volunteered in schools before and really enjoyed it, so I decided to go back to school and get my teaching certificate,” she remembers. “I figured I could combine my passion for science with my interest in education.”
And that’s exactly what she did. As a science teacher in SUSD for the past 11 years (4 years at Cocopah), Dodrill takes that same passion and desire to become an astronaut that she had in her youth and brings it into the classroom every day. Her infectious enthusiasm for the subject spills out and into the minds and imagination of her students.
“I have 165 kids who come through my door every day, and I only have 52 minutes with them, so I’d better be ready with all of the excitement and energy I can muster to ignite them and encourage them,” she says.
Dodrill ignites that spark every day by incorporating a variety of learning methods into her instruction. She regularly invites leaders in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) into her classroom to speak to students about their specific areas of expertise and related career fields. She hosts outside field trips to science centers and universities, such as a recent trip to Arizona State University’s Center for Meteorite Studies, home to the world’s largest university-based meteorite collection. She schedules annual star-gazing events in which she organizes workshops and hands-on planetary telescopic viewing for students and parents alike.
It’s because of Dodrill’s life-long devotion to science and the professional connections she’s made through the years that she is able to explore so much more than textbook information with her students. In fact, her role as a NASA Ambassador on three different missions gives Dodrill the opportunity to serve as a volunteer, advisor and educator in sharing her love of science and space with the greater community at large.
“I’m always updating my knowledge and training, and my students know that they can come in and ask me anything science or space related,” she says. “I think they feed off of my passion and energy and the knowledge that science is constantly changing. Every day you’re learning something different.”
Dodrill’s impact on her students’ science education and her constant self-improvement in the science field hasn’t gone unnoticed. This spring, she will travel to Washington, D.C. to accept The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) prestigious Foundation Educator Achievement Award. The AIAA, the world’s largest aerospace professional society, recognizes five outstanding educators nationally for their contributions to the continued study of mathematics, science and related technical studies among America’s youth.
Dodrill admits that the recognition and public accolades for her contributions to science education are gratifying, but that’s not why she teaches.
“There’s a sign in my classroom that reads, ‘Engage, educate and empower every student, every day,’ which is our district’s motto, but I really believe in that statement,” she says. “I feel that it’s my privilege to teach science to these kids. I love earth science, and when you have a love for what you teach, you don’t just bring 100 percent to the classroom, you bring 199 percent.”
Listening to Dodrill, you realize that “The sky’s the limit” maxim falls short for her students’ and her own unquenchable thirst for scientific knowledge. Perhaps this inspirational quote is much more fitting:
“Reach for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”