Spotlight: Nathan Yaussy (OH '19)January 27, 2020
Endless days in a lab with buckets of dead bugs drove Nathan Yaussy (OH ’19) from research science to teaching: “I realized that I needed people to talk to.” He received his Milken Award at Fairport Harding Early College High School in Fairport Harbor on November 8, 2019.
Milken Family Foundation: You’ve started science summer programs in aquatic ecology and zoology. What inspired you to create these opportunities for your students?
Nathan Yaussy (OH ’19): My hope was to give students interested in science a chance to dive deeper into the field. I wanted these to be a hybrid of college prep, project-based learning and summer camp. In Aquatic Ecology, students hiked, sampled, analyzed data and learned how to read scientific papers. In Zoology, students toured behind-the-scenes of zoos, caught bugs, researched and presented. I think these have been successful in giving these kids a leg up as they begin their next steps into academia.
MFF: How did you land in education?
Nathan: I never expected to become a teacher. My plan through high school was to become a research ecologist, a job that I described as “wandering through the woods alone with a thing that goes beep.” This plan took me to a master’s program at Kent State, where I studied Aquatic Entomology—swamp bugs. However, with no one else in the lab, and my only company being a five-gallon bucket of dead insects, I realized that I needed people to talk to.
MFF: How did your first year of teaching go?
Nathan: It was rough. My ability to think on my feet was my biggest ally—and procrastination was my biggest enemy. I was putting lessons together hours (sometimes minutes) before presenting them to the class. Many of them fell through. Some of them worked. Most of them were okay enough for me to spend the next seven years tweaking them into something decent.
That first year felt very isolating. I ate lunch alone in my room, with little contact with my fellow teachers. It took years for me to find a group of teachers where I belong. That has made a great difference in my mental health, as well as giving me more perspectives from which to approach my students.
MFF: What do you like about high school students?
Nathan: They are in the process of learning how they fit in the world. Today’s students are more socially aware and less willing to stomach being lied to. Many of them have already dealt with hard truths of reality and are looking for ways to set the world right.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Nathan: My father was the first and most important science teacher in my life. He’s a forest statistician by trade, but his curiosity for the world is contagious. He has always encouraged my desire to learn as much as possible—we are both concerningly competitive in trivia. Dad’s most obvious contribution to my science education was in science fair. He taught me experimental design, combinatorics, regressions, multivariate statistics, and the fact that real science is both unendingly tedious and infinitely rewarding.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Nathan: As the Award was being described, I was thinking about all the other teachers at Fairport who might be getting it, with the phrase “There’s no way it’s going to be me” going through my head. To say it was surprising is a massive understatement.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Nathan: It’s been nice to hear that what I’m doing means something. It’s easy to get swept up in a tidal wave of negativity and overwhelming expectations. It has been nice to hear from current and former students that maybe I’m okay at this teaching thing.
MFF: Any plans for your $25,000?
Nathan: The vast majority will go to paying off student loans for my wife and me. Boring, I know, but helpful. We plan on putting some away for a fun trip.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Nathan: In the classroom, my mantra has been “Curiosity is job number one.” In the age of the Internet, facts are easily accessible. If I can give students more tools with which to approach the world and a better understanding of the complexity of the universe they inhabit, I can feel like I’ve done something.
MFF: What do you hope your students remember from their time with you?
Nathan: When they leave my classroom, I hope they carry with them the idea that the world is a complex, interesting, weird and exciting place. I created a sign for my classroom: “Everything is always more complicated than you think.” I point to it often.
MFF: We hear you create exotic needle-felted stuffed animals. How did you get into that?
Nathan: I have always been a fan of obscure animals, like pangolins and axolotls. As a kid, I would search for plush animals of whatever weird creatures I could—and kludge together craft versions when I couldn’t. About 10 years ago, my wife learned to make soft sculptures from wool using needle felting. It involves balling loose wool into shape, then securing it by stabbing it repeatedly with a barbed needle. I learned that from her and immediately began making the obscure animals that have always fascinated me.
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