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'Mr. Y the Science Guy'

Rick Yonker travels to eight building and works in collaboration with other teachers in District 293. He said he loves teaching kindergarten through high school students about science and the skills of inquiry. Kara Hildreth / contributor

Nicknamed "Mr. Y the Science Guy," Rick Yonker enters elementary classrooms with mobile microscopes wearing his cool scientist's white jacket.

Some youngsters whisper. "I think he is a doctor."

Soon students realize the man in the white coat is worth listening. Budding scholars may learn to love science and learn to love learning, according to Yonker's district colleagues.

Teaching lessons in a mild manner with a Mr. Rogers demeanor, Yonker aims to become as engaging as the famous TV scientist Bill Nye the Science Guy. Yonker travels to all eight schools within District 192 in Farmington.

Yonker has taught youngsters about chemistry and life science. He taught kindergartners about outdoor observations and scientific note taking with snowshoeing. Students learn about fingerprinting and see their own cheek cells under microscopes.

Born from Sputnik

Yonker, 54, has built a career in teaching biology and chemistry at Farmington High School. He founded an at-risk youth program called The Bridges at the school with his fellow colleagues.

This science teacher works to engage students to love learning.

"I like to tell my students I am here because of Sputnik because when they launched Sputnik the satellite, they gave out national foundation scholarships," Yonker said.

His parents earned scholarships and met at Harvard where they earned masters' degrees in education — his mother in science and his father in math.

"I guess education is in my genetics," Yonker said. He taught middle school in White Bear Lake and South St. Paul before he joined Farmington School District nearly 11 years ago.

"I totally love what I am doing," he said, explaining her learns from teachers and students in all subjects.

Yonkers works in collaboration with district technology specialist Pete Fleenor and Kerry Benton, who is the literacy coordinator.

"We have discovered we work really well as a team," he said.

"My heart and passion is I just want to give back by investing in the district and investing in teachers and the buildings, and I am discovering when you are teaching you are in one classroom and in one building, but now I get to see the beauty of people's teaching passions and desires to see learning ignite in the life of students in all buildings."

Science and technology

Yonker's position of science and technology specialist is new to District 192 this year.

Barb Duffrin, executive director of educational services for Farmington Public Schools, leads an umbrella of staff under Teaching and Learning.

"We needed to support out staff with instructional technology so we were looking for that position," Duffrin said.

The aim may also be to boost science MCA state testing scores.

"We knew we needed some work in kindergarten through 12th grades in our science programming, and we needed a science specialist to help us with that and we know the science standards are coming up for review," Duffrin said.

The goal is to inspire students to become curious about learning and engaged in every subject, including science and technology.

"He is getting to know people in the district and building relationships and finding the best way he can support teachers, and he is learning, too, about all the things going on in the district," Duffrin said.

"I am confident he will have some ideas about how to move us forward and vent his knowledge about what is going on at the state level, too, and mine those two things," Duffrin said.

Giving teaching support

"My goal is to immerse myself in schools to learn about the needs and develop and partnerships with teachers to create opportunity and give support," Yonker said.

"I like to see students become engaged in inquiry and I use a microscope as a catalyst to inspire inquiry, and that interest helps them to become motivated to want to learn science," Yonker said.

Budding scientists join the middle school science clubs, the high school science teams, and the winning Rogue Robotics team and Science Olympiad teams to compete across the state and nation.

Yonker fosters increased participation in the school science fairs. He serves as a mentor and judge at all five elementary school fairs.

"Ultimately, what we want is to have lifelong learning and to have our students become successful in life," Yonker said. He has enjoyed seeing former high school students return who have decided to pursue careers in the science fields.

Parents can become a part of sparking the interest in own children as young, curious scientists, Yonker said.

"When I pull out the microscopes, many say 'I have one at home,'" he said. Parents can acknowledge a student's learning in science or ask their children to explain what they are learning in their science notebooks and on their personal iPads.

Seven years ago, Yonker was part of the district's rollout of iPads districtwide — something he calls a positive step in helping students guide their own path.

"I have gotten a glimpse into the big picture of the district and I can say wholeheartedly that I have seen teachers who are committed to learning about all aspects of excellence across out district as I observe in the classrooms," Yonker said.