How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Joel Hockin looks at his eighth-graders and sees great potential: In his eyes, they’re ready to be demographers, robotics technicians, or genetic engineers.

Last year, Hockin, a science teacher with a flair for complex and unusual hands-on lessons, tried to make that vision a reality.

Using a procedure he says is more common in college science laboratories than in middle school classrooms, Hockin and his students removed genetic matter from a glowing jellyfish and inserted it into bacteria. The descendents of the bacteria were bioluminescent just like the jellyfish.

“After they were successful, you could just see the amazement in their eyes,” Hockin recalled, pointing out that the lab work was more sophisticated than the typical eighth grade lesson. “If they can do real engineering in eighth grade, what will they accomplish in college?”

Hockin, 40, has been a teacher for 15 years, including the last three at the University Prep Science and Math Middle School. For that lesson and others, he was named the charter school teacher of the year today by the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

We spoke with him about his path into the classroom, his favorite lessons, and the importance of listening to students. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Describe your path into teaching.

I was asked to be a leadership counselor at a camp for upcoming seniors when I was in college. They told me I would be a great counselor. At the camp, we were teaching kids how to be leaders, and because of the impact I had on them I really saw myself as a teacher. I felt that it was a calling I was getting from God to help kids.

You’ve worked with outside companies to bring industrial robots into your classroom. Why did you do that?

It’s about showing the kids what the future is going to look like. What we’re trying to do is teach the kids real skills that they can use on Day 1, right out of high school. As soon as they step out of the classroom they can start working for one of the companies that uses these robots right away. They don’t need necessarily to go to college, though if they want to build on their knowledge that’s okay too.

Do you see any tension between making students more employable versus preparing them for college-level learning?

What we’re trying to do with these programs is not only help them master science standards but also to take kids to the practical level. We’re trying to go above and beyond the theory, bridging the gap to application. What does this theory look like in the real world?

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

Don’t always stick to your lesson plan. Every time that you teach a lesson plan, you think it’s going to go a certain route, but maybe the students’ interests lie in a specific part of the lesson. Let the students drive the lesson. Ask, ‘Are they better individuals at the end of your lesson?’ Not, ‘Did your lesson go well?’

How do you get to know your students?

When they get here on Monday morning, I ask them to tell stories about their weekend. I want us to be honest and open. I just listen to them, and ask them questions. Once they know that you care about them, you can take the next step of delivering the instruction.

If you weren’t a teacher, what would you be?

I could see myself as an engineer. I’m very analytical.

But I don’t know. I really feel like teaching is the best career. There’s nothing more impactful.