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The City Journals

Fort Herriman students are big fans of their cosplaying science teacher

Oct 14, 2019 02:51PM ● By Jet Burnham

Science teacher Gayle Dowdle keeps her students’ attention when she dresses as Queen Elizabeth I. (Photo courtesy Gayle Dowdle)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Queen Elizabeth I is a frequent visitor to Fort Herriman Middle School. 

On other days, Spider-Man, a quidditch player or fairy godmother can be spotted. When Gayle Dowdle wears one of her cosplay costumes to school, students pay attention.

“Outside of my teacher life, I'm a cosplayer,” said Dowdle, who teaches eighth grade science. “I've always tried to dress up as much as possible. There's always an excuse to wear a costume—it may be a stretch, but there is a reason.”

Dowdle dresses over-the-top for spirit days and holidays, but she also shows up in character to enhance her students’ learning experience. History comes alive for students when they hear about historical events from Dowdle when she looks and acts the part of Queen Elizabeth I. She has three different Queen Elizabeth costumes.

“It's nice because it fits into the era that they're learning about in history so there are connections that they can make,” Dowdle said.

When students participate in a survival activity to colonize a new planet, Dowdle wears her alien costume—the pink-haired Starfire from Teen Titans. And when students study the Civil War era, Dowdle comes to school in a Southern belle gown that would even make Scarlett O’Hara jealous.

Over her 15 years of teaching, Dowdle has taken her love of dressing up to the professional level.

“It definitely has escalated over the years,” said Dowdle. Since entering her first cosplay competition four years ago, she has won at every level of costume competition at Salt Lake’s FanX Comic Convention and is now a judge for the event.

Dowdle documents the progress of her costume-making on Instagram @dowdledesign and Facebook at thequeenscostumes. She spends hundreds of hours creating intricate, authentic, custom costumes for herself and others. Students are involved in the process because she uses the costumes to teach science and engineering principles.

“All cosplay is really engineering,” Dowdle said. Her steampunk Batgirl costume became a visual example of simple machines and the engineering process. She designed each moving part with motors and gears, including a pulley system to control the bat wings.

“I brought a piece of the costume and explained the process of how I tried something and it didn't work,” she said. “So, I had to come up with something new, and I tested that and that didn't work, so I had to come up with something new. Just going through and explaining that it's OK if you fail a few times and don't get the intended results because that's part of the process of engineering.”

Sabrina Lin, a 19-year old former student, remembers these lessons from Dowdle’s classes.

“She taught us it's OK if you designed something and it ends up failing so long as you gave it your all,” Lin said. “And it doesn't matter what anybody else thinks about it, so long as you're having fun creating what you want to create.”

Lin is currently studying engineering at the University of Utah and is interested in researching alternative sustainable materials. She credits her interest in science to Dowdle, who made the subject interesting.

Dowdle said her love of art, cosplay and accompanying fandoms help her create connections with students who share those interests. Even years later, students still remember her.

“I think what makes Ms. Dowdle so cool is she really doesn't care what anybody else thinks,” Lin said. “Slowly, I’m getting there myself—to not care what anybody else thinks. I am who I am, and having her as one of my role models just helps out with that.”

Dowdle was surprised when students like Lin told her that they felt more courageous to be themselves because of her example.

“It was like this ‘wow’ moment,” she said. “I didn't even think about that that's what the costumes were showing kids.” She now makes a conscious effort to dress up as often as possible. She encourages students to do what they love—even if others look at them funny. She believes it is an important lesson for middle school students, who are just figuring out who they are and developing the courage to show it.

“I’m trying to help them figure out that they can fit in and be a part of a group without looking like everybody else exactly, that they still have their own individuality and they can be themselves,” she said.