Where and what do you teach? Describe your school, its resources, and anything else that makes it a great place to teach.
I teach AP Biology, Accelerated Chemistry, and sponsor Future Doctors of America at Adlai E. Stevenson High School (District 125) in Lincolnshire, Illinois. It is a nationally ranked, four-year public high school of a little over 4,000 students, and is the birthplace of the professional learning community. It is a great place to work because all stakeholders value a top-notch education and the environment is extremely collaborative. Students and their families move into the district because they are intentionally seeking a stimulating academic environment. Teachers and administrators strive to synergize their efforts to create a rigorous and nurturing culture where every student can succeed. Each day, I am eager to go to work and participate in this engaging learning community.
What guided you in deciding to be a science teacher?
Although there are numerous factors that guided my decision to become a high school science teacher, the following three factors guided my decision the most: (1) I believe that each student deserves to become an independent thinker who can objectively observe the world around them with their own senses and then critically evaluate the empirical evidence that has been gathered. In an ever more complex environment, this skill set is increasingly important for a youth to develop into an adult who is a productive member of society. Observing and evaluating the material world serves as a foundation for students to then freely and critically assess ideas around them (whether or not they pursue a career in science). I wished to contribute to the development of these abilities in our youth. (2) In today’s world, science impacts almost every aspect of our lives, and we need critical and open thinkers of integrity to lead important scientific efforts. As a science teacher, I seek to do my best to make sure that each young mind with its unique strengths is aware of the various scientific fields that are open for career pursuit. I wanted to contribute to developing and molding the scientists of tomorrow. (3) Humans have an innate desire for connection and relationship with others. It is difficult to argue that this has largely contributed to our success as a species. Academic success for every student must include students who are nurtured in this manner and feel connected to others. I feel honored to be entrusted by the parents of our district to spend each day with our youth to make sure they feel valued and that they belong to a larger community. This is a third reason I became a science teacher. I would be hard pressed to think of a greater cause to which one can dedicate his career.
You were a practicing scientist prior to becoming a science teacher. How does your scientific experience inform your teaching?
Yes, prior to becoming a science teacher, I was a Tenured, Full Professor of Biological Sciences in higher education for 11 years, running a busy undergraduate-driven research laboratory in nanomedicine that was externally funded and publishing in peer-reviewed journals. My experience as a practicing scientist informed my teaching in many ways. In particular, it has made me deeply appreciate that student learning in the science classroom occurs at the highest level when learning takes place through authentic science research experiences where the result of the experiment is not known ahead of time. Few people like knowing the ending to a movie in advance, and few students are excited by an experiment where they know what should happen. By engaging students in novel research experiences in the science classroom, students own the work, are enthused, and learn more in the process.
What types of science learning opportunities do you create for your students?
I strive to create learning opportunities for students in which they must use the scientific method. Although not all scientific endeavors rely upon the scientific method, the scientific method is undeniably a hallmark of much scientific inquiry. For students to better understand the scientific method, they must have repeated opportunities to practice it. I strive to provide such opportunities through the aforementioned novel research experiences.
What does this look like in my science classroom, especially for students who may not necessarily have lots of experience in this realm? First, students are taught how to execute a new experimental technique (microscopy, gel electrophoresis, etc). Second, students are given a chance to practice that technique under an already tested positive control condition (where we know that we will get a given result) and an already tested negative control condition (where we know that we will not get a given result). This second part is important as it lets students witness with their own senses what the results look like under already established conditions. Students can repeat these positive and negative controls numerous times and then compare the results they witness between their own replicates (intra-experimenter replication) and compare their results with the results of other students (inter-experimenter replication).
Finally, once students are reasonably proficient at replicating the positive and negative controls then they are given the freedom to choose the experimental condition they will investigate using their newly learned experimental technique. In selecting their experimental condition, a student must survey the literature and answer the following question: Has anybody already researched this experimental condition and discovered the result? If the answer is no, then the student may proceed with their novel scientific investigation, execute the experiment, and repeat.
What do you think is the best approach to take when teaching students about science-related societal issues?
This is a great question. When science and society interact (as they often do), things can get complicated, and the abilities and role of science can perhaps become blurred. Like any human endeavor, science is subject to human imperfections. To combat these pressures and biases and keep science as objective as possible, I think the best approach to take in this realm is to instill in students the following scientific maxims:
Scientific inquiry is one manner to learn about our world that is dependent upon empirical observations (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching). There are other ways to learn about the world that are outside the scope of science.
The results of a novel scientific experiment, investigation, or inquiry cannot be known before the experiment, investigation, or inquiry is conducted.
All scientific conclusions are tentative and subject to revision. For a scientific conclusion to be likely correct, it must be supported by empirical observations, not personal authority, and repeated numerous times by others.
Scientific conclusions can inform us about our world, but they alone cannot tell us how to interact with our world. Human interactions with the world are also guided by other fields which make important contributions as well and must be considered in the overall analysis.
How do you build relationships with your students?
I am genuinely interested in my students as individuals, and it is important that they know this for us to build a strong relationship. To this end, I designate time at the beginning of each class period to get to know my students as people, and also for my students to get to know each other (to create a real community). At the beginning of each school year we have a class talent show where each student gets five minutes to share a non-science related talent with the class. Some students sing, while others dance. We’ve had rappers, Rubix Cubers, and even a comedian or two… sometimes even at my expense.
The great thing about this process is that we all get to learn more about each other! After the talent show is over, then I let the class pick the next get-to-know-you activity. They have come up with some good ones. For example, this last year one class selected Interview a Friend, where a given student gets questioned by the rest of the class each day. Some interviews get silly, some deep, others just fun. But in the end, we are getting to know each other beyond just the science. The five minutes at the beginning of each class is not wasted, but rather greatly enhances the subsequent 43 minutes each day for all.
What project/lesson are you most proud of that you implemented throughout your teaching career? Describe the most memorable lesson/project you use with your students.
The project/lesson that I am most proud of is simple, but draws students into the scientific method very effectively. Here is one iteration of it. Students are given a bunch of seeds that they will plant into fertilized soil (almost any plant will do, but true, independent replication is essential). They are told that one group of plants will be watered every day and that this is already known to enable the plants to grow successfully.
Their second group of plants will be watered every day with a solution that has a very high concentration of some solution that is already known to severely stunt/inhibit plant growth. Now that they have these controls, students are asked to research an experimental solution from their everyday lives (anything that is in solution or can be put into solution) to see if it has an effect on plant growth. It could be a beverage they consume or a lotion, etc., as long as proper lab safety protocols are followed.
Based on their observations from their everyday lives and experiences, students construct a hypothesis. It is amazing how eager students are to set up this simple experiment! I believe the key to this excitement is that the answer to their experimental question is not known by anybody (not even in the scientific literature). It is a novel research exploration! They must titrate their experimental solution into several concentrations which yields several experimental groups. Each day students are eager to check on their plant growth and record that data.
This continues for weeks, in the background during the first 10 minutes of class, as other lessons proceed. After the experiment is concluded, students analyze their data, compare averages and standard deviations, and draw tentative conclusions. If students see an effect in some concentration(s) of their experimental solution (from their everyday lives) on plant growth (which often occurs), I will inevitably ask them what was it about their solution that caused this differential growth? It is always fun to see their reaction when they realize that this first step in their scientific investigation (i.e., their first run through the scientific method) was not designed to identify the exact component of their solution that caused this change (for example, they may now believe that their mocha latte stunted or enhanced plant growth… but was it the caffeine… the cream… or the sugar).
They will need to refine their experimental design to investigate each of these components one at a time to get a higher resolution answer, each time running through the scientific method again and again. Welcome to authentic scientific inquiry of an unknown variable! It is very exciting to see the high percentage of students who are eager to continue to this next round of scientific inquiry.
What has been the most important lesson you learned from one of your students during your teaching career?
The most important lesson that I have learned from one of my students is that everybody faces some kind of adversity in their life. No matter how challenging a curve ball life throws your way, it is essential to show up for the game (of life) each day. The student (actually two students) who taught me this lesson both suffered injuries during their adolescence that presented unexpected life hurdles. Despite these obstacles, these amazing young individuals did not complain and tackled each day with a renewed zest for life. Truly inspiring and a model for us all.
What is one piece of advice you’d give to first-year science teachers?
I have received much wise advice that I would like to share here. However, if I was limited to picking one piece of advice to share with a first-year teacher, it would be the following: If you are excited about a lesson, there is a very good chance that your students will be too; if you are not excited about a lesson, find a new lesson, because your students will not be excited either. Enthusiasm is essential to life-long learning. If it is lacking, we need to figure out some way to find it.
What professional resources are most beneficial to your teaching? Feel free to share organizations, websites, links, and any other relevant sources.
Numerous professional resources have aided and enhanced my teaching throughout my career (including this journal). If I had to pick one professional resource that stands out, it would be the local professional learning community at Adlai E. Stevenson High School. Included in this professional learning community are fellow teachers, students, paraprofessionals, and administrators with whom I interact on a daily basis. These individuals are always available for consultation, challenging ideas, and support. They bring an energy to our ever-evolving school and a focus toward the center ideal of success for every student. During my first two years of working in secondary education, this learning community has been an invaluable resource and been essential in helping me make this career transition from university biology professor to high school science teacher. I am grateful to work among such individuals and am excited to see how our professional learning community continues to evolve in the years to come!
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