An angler's approach to education: Teacher of the Year finalist tries to get students hooked on science

MONTEVIDEO -- Gerry Wohlhuter stocks his sixth-grade classroom like a giant tackle box, and well he should. His business here is all about setting hooks. Every day brings an audience of fresh-faced, 11- and 12-year-old boys and girls into this room.

MONTEVIDEO -- Gerry Wohlhuter stocks his sixth-grade classroom like a giant tackle box, and well he should.

His business here is all about setting hooks.

Every day brings an audience of fresh-faced, 11- and 12-year-old boys and girls into this room. He knows that any one of them could someday be the scientist who is the first to land on Mars, find a cure for AIDS, or develop a car that runs on hydrogen.

"If you can get them hooked,'' said Wohlhuter about his approach to introducing young people to science.

It's an approach he's taken for 34 years in the Montevideo Middle School. It hasn't gone unnoticed. Wohlhuter is one of 10 finalists for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year award presented by Education Minnesota.


The finalists were chosen from a slate of 119 teachers representing schools all across the state. The final selection will be announced May 7.

Wohlhuter is flattered by the attention. But it's fair to say this is not the first time he's found himself the subject of some attention.

It's his classroom, for starters. In the midst of a modern school building, he has furnished his classroom with refurbished oak desks, wooden cabinets, and an eclectic assortment of artifacts from the days of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.

There are graphophones with big, daisy flower horns, Edison recording cylinders, hand-cranked telephones, and 3-D stereoscopes. There are also student-made gadgets, like a hand-made light bulb.

Wood tables in the classroom are covered with 1920s and 1930s vintage magazines celebrating the technology of the time, such as "wireless'' communication.

And there are books on these tables, lots of them: Jules Verne and the "Journey to the Center of the Earth,'' H.G. Wells and his "Time Machine,'' and Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein.'' They vie for attention with modern texts stuffed with colorful graphics describing everything from ecology to computers.

These things are part of the assortment of lures he uses to hook his students on science, and there is more. Classroom assignments often come with options to use computers, or to mix art with science.

Wohlhuter said he believes that learning happens best with lots of hands-on opportunities. He also espouses an unqualified right to let the imagination run free.


Former students remember him for his ability to reach out to all students, no matter their abilities or interests. "Why did the lost students find their voice in Gerry's class? I think a larger part of his success derived from the basic fact that he respected each one of us, no matter what,'' stated former student Jason Botten in a letter nominating Wohlhuter for teacher of the year. Botten is an assistant professor in molecular and integrative neurosciences at the Scripps Research Institute, and a respected researcher on the Hantavirus in the Southwestern U.S. He credits Wohlhuter with leading him to his career.

Dave Mitlyng, a 1989 Montevideo High School graduate, travels around the world today helping launch geosynchronous communication satellites and teaching their owners how to operate them. He attributes his career to having mentioned a side interest in electronics to Gerry Wohlhuter in sixth grade. His teacher responded by bringing in an electronics hobby kit and hooking him on what is now his passion.

Botten and Mitlyng are among a long list of "catches'' that Wohlhuter has managed with his fisherman-like approach to education. "In my opinion, he's the perfect model for a middle school teacher,'' stated Ed Nystrom, his former superintendent, in pointing out Wohlhuter's success at motivating students to careers in science.

Wohlhuter, who will turn 55 in May, grew up on a farm and attended school in the small, southern Minnesota community of Welcome. He graduated with a bachelor's degree from Southwest State University in Marshall in 1973. He was introduced to the Montevideo schools as a student teacher.

He said he found it an "amazing place to teach.''

He was offered the opportunity to join the faculty after he graduated. Wohlhuter is also the Montevideo varsity cross country coach, a position he's held since 1975. He has been an assistant track coach for nearly as long.

Wohlhuter said his choice of being a middle school teacher was easy to make. He has a hard time imagining an age group he more thoroughly enjoys.

There are challenges. Every section of 27 and 28 students that comes into his classroom each day includes some with needs that are all their own. Yet Wohlhuter is the first to dismiss the "doom and gloom" stories about kids these days.


He said young people today are every bit as curious as the Thomas Edisons and Alexander Graham Bells of our history, often just as mischievous, but also just as motivated.

Today's young people need to be recognized, and so does the education they are getting, he said. "There are a lot of good things going on here.''

His advice to those thinking about entering the profession of teaching is this: "You are really going to work hard, but like anything, when you work at it and prepare hard, it will be rewarded.''

No doubt, the reward for Wohlhuter comes every time he sets the hook and finds another student who lets his or her curiosity develop into enthusiasm for science.

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