Focus on the ‘why’: Glenwood Springs High School bio teacher’s winning approach

Glenwood Springs High School biology teacher Justin Silcox helps a group of students during a lab assignment in the classroom.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Justin Silcox is one of the best biology teachers in the country. The Glenwood Springs High School teacher has sought excellence in the classroom, and now he’s being recognized for it.

The National Association of Biology Teachers presented Silcox the 2017-2018 Outstanding Biology Teacher Award (OBTA) for Colorado Nov. 10 in San Diego at an annual conference, honoring Silcox as someone who has achieved distinction in biology teaching.

In a recent class at GSHS, Silcox guided a mix of ninth and 10th grade students through an experiment in diffusion and osmosis.

After a short introduction and instructions, Silcox releases his students to finish the experiment started in an earlier class. The students examine dialysis tubes, filled with salt and starch and submerged in beakers of an iodine solution. As students measure the results, Silcox explains the philosophy behind his teaching practices.

Silcox employs a teaching method known as Project Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) in this class, designed to engage students in the process of discovery.

But the most important thing is to get the students to work together, and Silcox has a number of rules for how the students go through the POGIL steps.

“The big things are that they’re in a circle, they’re looking in each other’s faces, they can talk to each other. The goal is to get them to work as a team rather than compete against each other.”


Silcox started in field research in ornithology after earning a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology from the University of Vermont. But studying birds is necessarily seasonal, so Silcox also pursued another passion, coaching Nordic ski races in the winter season. Working with the athletes awakened a love for education.

“I kind of chose to go into teaching because it combined my passion for working with kids and my passion for sharing biology,” Silcox said.

“He is absolutely passionate about biology,” said Ali Silcox, a counselor at Carbondale Middle School and Justin’s wife of 15 years. Ali sees her husband’s power of organization as one aspect of his success.

“I think because of his ability to be so organized, he can be totally present in his classroom. I watch him at home, and the amount of time he spends to be well organized and well prepared for classes leads me to believe that is part of the positive feedback he receives from students,” Ali said. “He can teach what he loves.”

Silcox started teaching science in 2005 at Cherry Creek High School, then taught for several years at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette. He and Ali and their two daughters, now 12 and 10, moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2012 when Justin started at GSHS.

“My wife is from Colorado, so that’s how I ended up in Colorado,” Justin said. Ali said she would take the credit for that. When the job at GSHS came up, Ali remembers a memorable visit to the Roaring Fork Valley.

“It was like a blue-bird, beautiful day, there was this job opening, and he came back from Spring Gulch [a local cross-country skiing trail system], and he said ‘OK, I’m going to think more about taking this job,’” Ali said.

Silcox has coached Rocky Mountain Nordic qualifiers, taught U.S. Ski Association regional camps, and still coaches competitive skiers with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club.


“I don’t know who nominated me,” Silcox said of the award. “I just received an email from the National Association of Biology teachers letting me know I was nominated, and was asked if I’d like to apply.”

The application had a number of questions and essays on education, about science instruction and the philosophy of teaching.

“Justin brings the same intensity to teaching science as he does to competing in Nordic skiing,” GSHS principal Paul Freeman said. “It’s not possible to knock him even slightly out of his stride. He is noted for his meticulously detailed approach and his zen calm.”

Since the award was announced, Ali says former students have contacted Justin to congratulate him and to thank him. One person, now a college senior, said Justin was the reason they majored in biology.

“That’s a pretty moving example of the ripple effect of an award like this,” Ali said.

The application included a number of questions and essays on education, about science instruction and the philosophy of teaching, as well as examples of how he presents material in the classroom.

The goal of the award is to recognize biology teachers who are on the cutting edge of implementing effective, active learning processes in the classroom.

“We look for someone who teaches according to the best research-based practices,” Cindy Gay, director coordinator for NABT, said in an interview. Gay oversees the selection process for outstanding biology teachers in the region, which includes Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and Nevada.

Gay has known Silcox since 2012 when he was in an AP Biology Leadership Academy, and said he was among the first teachers to implement new practices that Colorado later adopted as state standards for science education.

“We want innovators and cutting-edge leaders in science education who are looking for ways to enact those practices in their classrooms, and Justin was among those,” Gay said.

Silcox stood out in a crowded field of applicants for the Colorado award, which is a testament to how well he’s doing, Gay said.

The NABT also looks for teachers who make the student’s understanding the priority, not merely what the student remembers. A teacher who lectures and then has students fill out worksheets is what Gay calls a teacher-centered classroom.

“We want to see that the teacher is providing opportunities for students to learn actively instead of passively,” Gay said.

learning together

Back in the classroom, Silcox explains the point of his teaching method, as summarized by an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Once the students have weighed and measured the dialysis bags, which have turned from clear to blue-black in the solution, they sit down with POGIL worksheets in groups of three.

It goes beyond merely getting the right answer as a group. Silcox requires the students to list the answer and why they believe that answer is correct.

“By having them work together, and focusing not on just the answers to the question, but the ‘why,’ that’s when they learn. Once they know the ‘why,’ they can do it on their own,” he said.

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