LAWRENCE — A sixth-grade science teacher known for singing songs with students about cells and organelles received one of the biggest awards in education Wednesday morning.
Daniel Adler looked gobsmacked as he was presented with the prestigious Milken Educator Award at the Up Academy Leonard Middle School in Lawrence before the entire student body, former honorees, and local and state officials.
This is the first time an educator from the Lawrence Public Schools has received the national award for furthering excellence in education.
“The most important thing about Dan is his hunger to get better every day,” said principal Komal Bhasin. “It really helps students not just learn science content but be scientists.”
Of the 40-plus honorees around the nation this season, Adler is the only recipient in Massachusetts. The Milken Award comes with $25,000.
It’s all gravy for Adler, who said he hopes to be the next Bill Nye the Science Guy because he loves teaching and encouraging students to explore science. “Crazy hair, lab coat, lighting things on fire,” Adler said, describing the mad scientist he aspires to be.
At the beginning of the school year, Adler teaches the critical art of scientific observation by showing students what they think is a candle. He lights the end and asks them what they think they’re looking at. He then bites it, showing them they’re wrong. They quickly realize it’s a cheese stick.
“Scientists can’t just look,” Adler said. “They observe, and they’re careful, and they’re accurate. And they have to be more careful than everyone else because their observations might lead to the next discovery that cures cancer.”
Adler’s journey to teaching began after he graduated from Yale, where he’d double majored in biochemistry and history. He felt he didn’t leave the university with a sense of mission, eventually taking a job in management consulting. He left that job to work for an education nonprofit in Boston.
Adler discovered his happy place seven years ago inside a classroom mentoring students in science and belting out contemporary melodies with his own original, science-themed lyrics. The teacher uses games like charades and Simon Says to keep students engaged.
“All children want to learn,” Adler said. “Everyone wants to learn and see themselves grow and get better. What you need to do as the teacher is figure out what you need to do for that scholar to make sure they get where they can get and deserve to get.”
Created by the Milken Family Foundation in 1987, the award is not one that teachers can apply for themselves. Each year, the foundation’s staff scours schools nationwide for outstanding teachers, said Jane Foley, senior vice president with the Milken Family Foundation.
“[Dan] has lots and lots of options of what he could be doing in his career and he decided to be here as a teacher,” Foley said. “It’s very gratifying to know that we can be in a school that is making such great progress, and a teacher who’s part of that progress, and to say ‘thank you.’ ”