Over the past decade, Bangor High School students have come to dominate Maine’s science competitions. They’ve won the state Stockholm Junior Water Prize for nine consecutive years and the Maine Science Bowl three out of the past four years, including at the 2018 event held March 3. Last week they won 22 out of 39 categories at the Maine State Science Fair. Five of those Bangor High students were awarded full scholarships to the University of Maine.
What’s one thing all those students have in common? Chemistry teacher Cary James.
But James, 66, who is also the chair of the school’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Academy, downplays his influence on his students. He says he’s simply opening the door. They have to walk through it.
“I think going to school and playing the game of ‘What does the teacher know?’ is not a good way to learn,” said James. “I’m just here to make the student realize that he or she can figure it out on their own. It’s not about me. It’s about them. They’re way smarter than I am.”
James’ no-nonsense, good-humored and sometimes unorthodox style has endeared him to generations of students over his more than 30-year teaching career and has had lasting impacts on the lives of those students as they have graduated, gone to college and moved onto careers, whether in a STEM field or not.
“I think all the success students have had directly ties back to Mr. James and the passion he brings to the classroom,” said Paige Brown, one of his former students who is now a sophomore at Stanford University, studying chemical engineering.
When he was growing up in western Massachusetts, the last thing on James’ mind was a career in science, let alone teaching.
“My guidance counselor told me I wasn’t college material,” he said.
At that time, all he wanted to do was play in a rock band and bike, hike and paddle every road, peak and river in New England. And that’s what he did for 10 years, until enrolling in the University of Massachusetts at Amherst at 29.
“Some kids take gap years. I took 22 semesters off,” said James.
Much to his surprise, he found himself excelling in science, getting his B.A. in chemistry and microbiology. He later attended the University of Maine, getting a masters degree in plant pathology in 1985, and eventually working for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. The science part of his career was locked in. The teaching part came next.
“They needed a chemistry teacher at Piscataquis Community High School. Winters get pretty boring at the extension office, so I thought, what the heck, I’ll give it a shot,” said James. “I loved that too. It never occurred to me before then to teach.”
James taught chemistry at PCHS and at Central High School in Corinth before coming to Bangor High School in 1999, a school he’d wanted to teach at for years, but which didn’t have an opening in the science department until the late 1990s.
In 2012, James and his colleagues, with help from faculty at the University of Maine, established BHS’s STEM Academy, the first of its kind in Maine. Students in the STEM program undertake projects in which they do complex research — including the Stormwater Management Research Team, which James co-founded with UMaine engineering professor Mohamad Musavi. The program, better known as SMART, brings students and community members together to collect data, develop solutions, and educate the public about stormwater pollution and management.
James’ influence goes beyond simply teaching science, through his work in the area has garnered him many accolades, including most recently the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, awarded in 2015.
“He’s not just trying to give us knowledge. He wants to give us life experience,” said Brown, who in 2016 as a BHS senior came in third place in the Intel Science Talent Search, the most prestigious science competition in the country.
“One time he told us he found out a student in a class didn’t know how to change a tire, so he took the whole class out and changed a tire,” she said. “That’s how he is.”
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