Tag Archives: chemistry

Short Trip to the Shortgrass Prairie

It’s been almost a year since I posted to this blog, which kinda makes sense.  I started it to chronicle my “really big year” of traveling to see birds and visit schools, a year that ended in June of 2013.  I thought about whether I should “retire” this blog, or to keep using it to share new travels.  When I returned to work full time in August of 2013, I vowed to reserve a little room in my busy life for the sort of adventures that occupied much of the 2012-2013 academic year for me.  And so in that spirit, I have decided to keep using this blog from time to time, as the occasion arises.  While I will not soon repeat the kind of Big Year that began for me two years ago, I hope to keep the spirit of inquiry and adventure that I kindled in myself that year alive, to make every year at least a little “big.”

It was in this frame of mind that I cashed in some frequent flyer miles for a short trip to Colorado.  While I don’t consider myself to be the kind of birder obsessed with lists and “ticking off” the next lifer, I do enjoy seeing birds that I haven’t seen before.  And I was also only four birds away from having seen 700 species in the ABA Area, a milestone of some note.  I turn 40 in January, and it would be pretty cool (although perhaps not totally practical) to reach 700 by then.  Also, my friend Neil Hayward keeps pestering me about getting to 700, so I guess there’s peer pressure too!

I flew into Denver on Wednesday morning, and headed northeast to the Pawnee National Grassland.  This area is some of the best preserved remaining shortgrass prairie habitat in the United States.

Short Grass Prairie at Dawn

Shortgrass prairie used to be fairly widespread on the western Great Plains.  This habitat was shaped by relatively low rainfall and by the consistent grazing of abundant herds of American Bison.  The loss of the bison, overgrazing by cattle, and human development have greatly reduced the quality and quantity of this kind of prairie in Colorado and elsewhere in the American West.  Pawnee National Grassland is one place where you can still find vast swathes of unbroken shortgrass.  Interestingly, it is administered by the US Forest Service, although Pawnee is nothing but a forest of grass.

Flowering cactus

And cacti.


And crazy, huge caterpillars.

However interesting the shortgrass prairie is in and of itself, I was here for the birds.  And one bird specifically: McCown’s Longspur.  This species breeds in a thin slice of shortgrass prairie from Alberta down through Montana, Wyoming, and northern Colorado, and it winters in northwest Texas.  In other words, it’s not a particularly easy or convenient bird to see if you live outside the mountain west.  And while you can find them somewhat reliably on their wintering grounds as skitterish flocks of drab grayish birds, I wanted to see them in their summer glory: the males in their full breeding plumage (black, white, and chestnut), singing, and doing their parachuting display flights over the prairie.  So here I was in rural NE Colorado, with less than 40 hours to find the longspurs before my return flight to Seattle.

Driving along the few gravel roads that transect Pawnee, there was plenty to see.  Lark Buntings, the state bird of Colorado, were incredibly abundant.

Lark Bunting

I saw probably 200 breeding pairs on territory in a day and a half.  Horned Larks were also very common.  I didn’t get any good pictures really showing how dramatic their “horns” can be – I guess that’s a job for another trip.

Horned Lark

A real treat was finding a pair of Common Nighthawks sleeping on a rusty fence.  These birds, a member of the goatsucker or nightjar family (I love those names!), are usually most active at dawn and dusk.  These two were definitely snoozy.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

After a few miles, in the distance, I thought I caught the jumbled song of a longspur!  Trekking out into the prairie, I watched a lone male leap into the air and come fluttering down while singing his complex song.  I wanted to stay a while and watch him, but the wind was whipping up, and over my left shoulder I could see a serious storm building.

Storms Coming

Beating the rain and lightning back to the car, I vowed to come back early the next morning to get a better look.

I drove through the afternoon thunderstorm back to Fort Collins, where I had dinner at local institution that holds a special place in the hearts of chemistry teachers everywhere.

Avogadro's Number

This being a birding post, I’ll spare you the significance of Avogadro’s number to the realm of the molecular sciences (but you can read about it on Wikipedia if you are really interested).

Serious birders are in the field at dawn during the spring and summer.  And dawn was about 5:20am.  So I dragged myself out of bed and raced for the prairie.  After a bit of searching, I was rewarded with fantastic looks (and mediocre pictures) of about a dozen McCown’s Longspurs displaying, singing, foraging, and generally loafing about the prairie.

McCown's Longspur

McCown's Longspur

McCown's Longspur

I spent the rest of the morning exploring more of Pawnee.  Sparrows were a highlight, including this Grasshopper Sparrow who posed for me:

Grasshopper Sparrow

I also found this amazing short-horned lizard:

Short-horned lizard

Some people call these critters “horned toads,” but they are reptiles and not amphibians.  This guy was only about 2 inches long, and almost perfectly camouflaged amongst the rocks on the side of the road.

All too soon it was time to head back to Denver for my flight home.  It was a very short trip, but I feel like I made the most of it.  My big year lives on, at least in little ways.


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Teaching Science Using the Harkness Method

I’ve been on a bit of a schools/teaching kick lately with this blog, which has been fun (if you want to see more bird pics, check back starting April 8!).  My reflections on “good teaching” bring me back to one of the things that inspired the teaching component of my Big Year: my trip to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire three years ago.  It was an amazing trip, and gave me so much to think about.  I wrote up an informal report of my trip for some of my Lakeside colleagues, and I have decided to reprint that report here.  Just to be clear, I did not visit Exeter again – this is from three years ago.  In that time, the concept of the “flipped classroom” has really gained popularity – and it’s interesting to compare “the flip” circa 2013 with what Exeter has been doing for decades.  Finally, this report was written for a Lakeside audience, so phrases like “the way we do things here” mean the way we do them at Lakeside.  Enjoy!

Academy Bldg

Caryn Abrey and I visited Exeter in April of 2010, and spent almost two days touring the school, observing classes, and talking to adults and students.  We were struck by a whole range of differences between Exeter and Lakeside, but three things that made a particular impact on us were Exeter’s approach to science teaching (the Harkness Method), their use of a weekly Meditation period, and their process of initial teacher evaluation and induction.


Harkness Method in Teaching Science

One of the things for which Exeter is famous is the Harkness method of teaching, in which small classes of students sit around an oval table with the instructor.  It is a “student centered classroom” in which the teacher does not lecture or directly control the discussion.  Students take primary responsibility for driving the lesson forward, asking and answering each others’ questions, and constructing their own understanding of the topic.  Teachers may sometimes step in to ask questions, redirect errant discussions, or provide some clarification, but they do not dictate the pacing, interpersonal dynamics, or (sometimes) even exact content of the lesson.

While Exeter has been using the Harkness method since the 1930s, I was surprised to learn that science classes did not employ this method until the early to mid 1990s.  At that time, the science faculty were, in fact, the lone hold-outs in keeping lecture as their primary mode of instruction.  In the 1990s, some of the science teachers began to experiment with a more student-centered approach.  Progress towards a “science Harkness method” was somewhat gradual and inconsistent at first, but momentum began to build as the science faculty started planning their impressive new Phelps Science Center.  One of the questions that the Exeter science teachers wrestled with was whether to include space in each new science classroom for a Harkness table.  At first they were significantly divided on this issue, but finally reached consensus: the science dept would embrace Harkness as the standard mode of instruction for all science classes, starting with the completion of the Phelps Science Center in 2001.

 Science building

Phelps Science Center

While all of the science teachers agreed to use the Harkness method in their classes, there is no single definition for what Harkness is.  The key elements seem to be a student-centered classroom in which the students take primary responsibility for their own learning.  The teacher can act as a support or guide in this process.  Within the department, there is apparently a spectrum of how student-centered each class is, with different teachers interpreting for themselves the right balance of student-teacher voice and influence.  There is no official “enforcer” of “Harkness orthodoxy” on campus (or in the dept), and teachers are actually given a little freedom in finding a precise Harkness style that works for them.  However most of the adults we talked to were very clear about the distinction between the Harkness method (endorsed and used at Exeter) and the Socratic method of teacher posing questions to students (not really promoted by Exeter).  While in real life these two techniques share some similarities, Exeter faculty explained that the Socratic method, while fostering student involvement and dialogue with the teacher, is still ultimately an expression of a teacher-centered classroom.  In a Socratic classroom, much of the conversation is teacher-student-teacher-student-teacher-student (represented by spokes on a wheel with the teacher at its center), while a Harkness classroom is much more likely to be teacher-student-student-student-teacher-student-student.  In fact, for a while in several classrooms, the teacher seemed almost invisible or irrelevant for parts of the lesson.


A Chemistry Classroom with Harkness Table

While I had a basic idea of the Harkness method before I visited Exeter, I had a very hard time envisioning how this approach could be successful in science.  Without lecture, how would students learn any content?  And how can they do science (the process) without any content as background?  With little direct teacher “control,” why did classes not simply descend into anarchy?  How did teachers keep the classes moving in a productive direction if the students were in control?  Why and how are Exeter students so successful at teaching themselves, when this approach seems like it would be a major challenge at Lakeside?  Just a couple of classroom observations largely answered these questions for me.

Without lecture, how do students learn any content? 

Just because students do not listen to lecture does not mean that they don’t receive any sort of direct instruction or learn any facts – the direct instruction just doesn’t come from the teacher.  Part of the Harkness method relies on students learning much of the factual content of the unit outside of class, often from a text book or other reading assignment.  Class time is often reserved for applications of concepts, lab investigations, problem solving, and extensions or elaborations of basic material.  In some ways this is the opposite of the approach we take at Lakeside, in which basic content is often explained (by the teacher) during class, and homework is used as time to practice problem solving and look at extensions or applications of the basic material.  Exeter students reported that they really liked and appreciated their approach: “I can learn all the basic stuff on my own in the dorm,” one student told us.  “I like the idea that we spend class time doing the harder and more complicated stuff together.  I would find it really difficult if we learned the basic stuff in class and I had to do the hard stuff on my own for homework.  It’s much easier with many brains.”

Sometimes, the students have a hard time understanding all of the material at home.  When this happens, they bring in questions to the class.  “I didn’t get why the second Ka didn’t matter in this acid/base problem,” one student remarked.  The teacher said nothing, but another student jumped right in: “See how the second Ka is way, way smaller than this one?  Like five orders of magnitude.  It’s a terrible acid, so that second H+ just doesn’t ionize hardly at all.”  Sometimes questions came up (from a student or the teacher) that no one seemed to know the answer to.  In that case, students pounce on their text books (which are always brought to class and usually open on the table) and look up the answer.  Because students are accustomed to taking responsibility for their own learning, they have become experts at “how to find the answer” for themselves.  Unlike Lakesiders, their reference of first resort (during class) is almost always a book and not the internet.  Also, they rarely ask their teachers for the answer to a question, and when they do, they don’t necessarily expect a direct answer.  Often, instead, they ask the question to the classroom at large, and another student (or two or three!) will respond.  Teachers do feel free to chime in on occasion when they feel their input will be particularly helpful.  I also noticed that they sometimes do deliberate check-ins with students who had questions or concerns about the concepts – “Jonathan, are you OK with that now?”

Content is not always learned just at home.  Sometimes concepts and ideas are actually developed during class itself through a kind of discovery learning.  I watched a physics class in which the teacher posed a question: “What kind of variables affect the speed of a wave?”  He was seated with the rest of class around the Harkness table, and was taking notes on a tablet PC.  A data projector showed his notes on a large screen.  Instead of generating his own notes for the students to copy down, the teacher simply transcribed the student discussion that transpired, serving as a kind of scribe or recording secretary for the lesson.  He wrote down student observations and questions, and carefully drew a line through student hypotheses that were later determined to be incorrect (by the students).   The physics teacher provided a simple wave machine demo device for the students to experiment with, along with some physical springs and slinkies that could make various kinds of waves.  He also used physics software on his tablet PC that he manipulated at the request and direction of the students.  The students used these devices and demos to experiment with different hypotheses: Did changing the amplitude of the wave change its speed?  How about changing its frequency or wavelength?  Students played with the demos, asked each other questions, and drew pictures and graphs on the many whiteboards around the room.  They were always very attentive and respectful of each other, and at all times there was only one conversation going at a time.  In a few places where the students drew an incorrect conclusion, the teacher said nothing for several minutes, waiting to see if the students would catch their own error – usually they did.  In one case, after 5 minutes passed, he stepped in to ask a pointed question, and the students realized their mistake.  Near the end of the class, the students took a sharp right turn into a tangential question about the relationship between an amplitude vs. displacement graph of a wave and an amplitude vs. time representation of a wave.  It was a subtle distinction – which kind of graph really showed the wave itself, and which showed only a certain position on the wave and how it changed over time – and what was the difference between the two?  And the significance of these differences?  I’m not sure if this discussion was really what the teacher had in mind for this particular class, but it was a fascinating conversation that the students seemed to get a lot out of, and the teacher allowed it to basically run its course.  At the end of the lesson, the teacher had recorded a neat outline of the entire lesson, and emailed this to the class – another strange inversion (the students present the material and the teacher takes the notes!).

Many chemistry classes were not too different from ones I have observed at Lakeside.  Many of them centered around student problem solving, either debriefing homework assignments or working on application or extension problems.  In almost all cases, students worked in groups of two or three.  Sometimes these groups were assigned by the teacher; in other cases, students simply worked with the people seated near them.  It was rare that students were asked to complete any task in class by themselves without the possibility of help or collaboration from a peer.  In a couple cases, students performed a lab or a lab-like investigation, even during a “short” 50- minute period.  The teachers reported that often they will start a unit with a lab (Exeter chemistry classes do 1-2 labs a week), and use this experience to introduce the material to the students.  This gives students some introductory information, and also a ready-made source of questions for further investigation.


A Chemistry Classroom with both Harkness Table and Lab Space

With little direct teacher “control,” why did classes not simply descend into anarchy?  How did teachers keep the classes moving in a productive direction if the students were in control? 

On the surface, it appears that the students have significant control over the class.  But this appearance of total student direction and control is somewhat of an illusion.  Upon further investigation, it is revealed that every lesson is carefully crafted and planned by the teacher.  He or she does not simply walk into the classroom and say, “learn chemistry!”  In fact, each day is mapped out ahead of time.  In many cases handouts are prepared to guide the kids, or a slate of questions is written up ahead of time.  Examples are picked very carefully to illustrate key points, and labs and demos are chosen to guide students in the right direction.  While it sometimes feels to the students as if they are bushwhacking their way through some unexplored jungle, they are in fact traversing a definite path with subtle signposts and markers along the way.  If the students wander astray from the main track, the teacher gently (or sharply) reins them in and points them back down a more productive direction.  The challenge for the teacher is to provide just the right amount of guidance and scaffolding so that the students can achieve progress on their own without it seeming either too easy or too onerous.  Despite the basic premise that the class is student-centered, teachers are not afraid to be remarkably direct and involved on occasion: “Let’s hold off on that line of thinking for now.”  “I’m afraid I don’t agree.”  “I think we can skip X for now and just focus on Y for the moment.”  “Take 5 minutes right now and summarize this discussion in your notes.”

One interesting consequence of the fact that the students have significant control over the classroom is that the pace of each class seems relaxed, almost leisurely.  In observing many 45-minute classes at Lakeside, there is often a sense of urgency or even stridency, especially in the last 10 minutes or so of the period.  The teacher is rushing to finish his point, or to get to her demo, or to solve that one last problem.  In the “rush to finish” the lesson, important points are sometimes overlooked.  In fact, many Lakeside teachers and students remark that the Weds-Thurs block periods often feel much more relaxed because there isn’t as much time pressure to “squeeze everything in.”  At Exeter, many of the short periods feel as relaxed and unrushed as Lakeside’s block periods.  Because the students control much of the tempo and pacing, they move at a speed that is comfortable to them.  They have no particular incentive to “get through one more example” or “cover 3 more points” in the last 10 minutes of class.  If they need more time to understand something, they take it.  If they are ready to move on, they will.  This slower pacing no doubt contributes to less material being covered each week, but it certainly makes for a less stressful class period.

We noticed that the relaxed feeling carried over into the field trip as well.  On Lakeside field trips, we often expect students to take notes, do field sketches, etc.  On the Exeter Ornithology field trip, students were encouraged to soak in the experience and focus on observing the wildlife around them.  The teacher took notes, and provided the students with a summary of the species observed when the trip was finished.

Another interesting observation relating to pacing is the effect on the classroom when the teacher sits down with the students.  While a teacher who is physically active walking around the room has the potential to create some dynamic energy, he or she also is potentially giving students permission to be passive observers of the “show.”  When the teacher sits with the students, there is less kinesthetic action, but somehow there is also the expectation of intimate, reciprocal conversation.  While it’s not necessarily strange or rude to remain silent during a lecture (even when questions are being asked), it IS uncomfortable when one party refuses to participate in a personal conversation.  Sitting at the Harkness table brings the whole class into “conversation mode” and out of the “lecture” setting.

Science lobby

Why and how are Exeter students so successful at teaching themselves, when this approach seems like it would be a major challenge at Lakeside?

The biggest difference here seems to be the school culture and the training that Exeter students receive.  They come to the school knowing that the Harkness method will be used extensively, and they practice it every day in every one of their classes.  The idea that students should be responsible for their own learning becomes deeply ingrained in the school culture.  Students don’t struggle with this responsibility (at least not in upper level courses) because they are completely comfortable and practiced with this approach.  Lakesiders certainly could get to be comfortable with a system like this (in fact a number of teachers here use variants of it), but they would need to be trained to use it in the science context.  It certainly wouldn’t be an easy or seamless shift in approach for our students or our teachers.

Other differences between Exeter and Lakeside involve average course loads and class sizes.  Exeter is on the trimester system (which they call “terms”).  The maximum number of courses that any student can take per term is five (although music lessons can be taken in addition to their normal course load).  Most core science classes (i.e. biology, chemistry, physics) meet all three terms during the year, while elective science classes (i.e. Marine Biology, Astronomy) meet only one.  There is also supervised and structured study time throughout the day (and evening).  All of these things combined with the fact that very few students spend time each day commuting to and from school (80% of the kids are boarding) mean that students have more time on average to prepare for each lesson outside of class.  Class sizes are also smaller than Lakeside, with an average class being about 10-12.  Classes as small as 8 are not uncommon, and there is a hard cap at 14.  Smaller classes give each student more of a chance to participate in each lesson.

Phelps Science Center

Technology and Harkness

While technology does not relate directly to the Harkness approach, it was interesting to see how technology was used (and not used) in the Exeter science classrooms.  In all of our observations, we only saw a single student use a laptop during class.  While almost all students have computers, they are discouraged from using them during the normal class lessons.  One teacher explained that the heart of the Harkness philosophy is that students sit in a circle and communicate directly to each other.  The laptop becomes a distraction – if students are busy looking at their screens then they are not looking at one another.  This is an interesting contrast to the widespread use of laptops at Lakeside.  Here laptops are employed very effectively as a teaching and learning tool in many classes, but they also are a source of distraction and disengagement for many students.

Exeter has also essentially rejected the SMART board and related technologies.  While the teachers there were intrigued by some of its possibilities, they decided that ultimately it is an embodiment of a teacher-centered classroom (or at the very least a technology that is primarily designed to be used by one person at a time, and not by a group).

Tablet PCs were used on several occasions by the teacher to record notes for the class, or to project demos, simulations, movies, or web pages on the big screen in each classroom.  These seemed to be popular and well utilized.  Interestingly, each classroom has a dedicated tablet PC just for use with the projector – this is NOT the teacher’s personal [work] computer.  Most teachers have a desktop computer for their personal use in the classroom.  Each teacher essentially has his or her own room, so there are not group offices for the full time faculty.

Harkness as a “Flipped Classroom” Model?

In many ways, the Harkness Method is a lot like the “flipped” model of classroom instruction, in which students learn basic content at home and practice skills and do applications during class.  A major difference is that the “flipped” model is often associated with watching videos or seeing online audio-visual presentations.  At Exeter, students usually get the content by reading books and articles.  Caryn and I joked that Harkness is like a 19th Century version of the flipped classroom.  Except in this case, I’m not sure the technological progress of the 21st Century is entirely serving the students.  While the video format certainly opens the doors to some powerful visuals and demonstrations, it comes at the expense of time spent reading and digesting the written word.  Am I old-fashioned to think that by essentially jettisoning books and relying on pre-digested mini-videos (akin to “watching TV”?), the modern flipped model is robbing students of a very important set of skills?

Relation of Harkness to Other Educational Philosophies

At first glance the Harkness method, particularly as adopted by the science department, seems to share a lot in common with the progressive educational psychology theories of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.  Watching a science lesson at Exeter, you could easily imagine that it was recently designed by an educational psychologist from a well-known college of education.  The inquiry or discovery methods that grew out of earlier work by Piaget and his intellectual descendants stress student-centered lessons featuring constructivism, the idea that students can and should create their own meaning and knowledge through being actively engaged with the world around them.  Under the constructivist model, teachers act like a guide or mentor, not the source for all information.  The constructivist/inquiry model of science education is now the standard approach taught at most American teacher colleges.

While the Harkness method seems to share many similarities with the constructivist/inquiry model, it is a distinct phenomenon that in fact does not seem to draw much direct inspiration from the academic world of educational psychology.  Most of the teachers I spoke to did not know much about these theories or have any sort of formal or informal training in educational psychology.  Relatively few Exeter science teachers appear to have attended teachers’ college or studied current writings in cognitive psychology or current science education philosophy.  In contrast, they came to learn about the student-centered classroom by watching other Exeter teachers practice their craft.  In this way it is very much like an apprenticeship system in which young teachers are trained by the experienced masters by direct observation and instruction.  In hiring new science faculty, the department looks for teachers who are open to the idea of a student-centered classroom, but not necessarily those who have extensive experience or training in this approach.  Exeter provides the training and mentorship needed to help teachers new to the school adopt the Harkness approach.

As someone who has been through the UW’s College of Education, the Exeter experience was a little jarring.  I would watch 40 minutes of an incredibly elegant student-driven constructivist lesson.  Then the teacher would hand out a chemistry lab with step-by-step cookbook instructions, which did not seem in keeping with the constructivist approach.  Or the students would take a quiz which was entirely multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank, a seemingly odd choice for a chemistry or physics class.  The pairing of very traditional education methods in assessment and laboratory work with a total student-centered inquiry/discovery class discussion seemed a bit incongruous, although it’s hard to draw too many firm conclusions on the basis of such a limited observation.

Library with Harkness table

Library Lobby with Harkness Table

 New Teacher Evaluation and Induction

As mentioned above, Exeter science teachers are not required to have specific background or training in the Harkness style before they are hired.  Instead they look for teachers with a lot of potential to be successful in this environment, and an openness and willingness to use Harkness methodology.  Essentially, it sounds like they usually “grow their own teachers.”

Every teacher new to Exeter gets a mentor who works closely with that new teacher.  In contrast to the Lakeside system, the mentor is always from the science department (and almost always from the same subdepartment – a fellow physics teacher, for example).  At Exeter there are three terms (trimesters) a year, and new teachers are evaluated for NINE terms in a row.  Evaluations happen in their 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. up through 10th term.  This means twice in their first year, three times in their second year, three times in their third year, and once in their fourth year.  The fourth year serves as the summative evaluation year for that teacher, when a decision is made about whether or not to offer the teacher tenure.  Tenured teachers are invited back for a fifth year and have the expectation of job security for that year and every subsequent year.  Teachers who don’t receive tenure are not invited back after the fourth year.

Each evaluation is performed by a tenured teacher in the department (but not necessarily the department head).  For each evaluation, the tenured teacher sits in on 3 classes in a row, observing the lessons and meeting with the teacher after each class.  The new teacher and the tenured one have some substantive discussions together, and a document is written which summarizes the visits.  While these nine evaluations contribute to the overall summative assessment in year four, individually they are largely formative evaluations designed to give constructive feedback to the teacher and aid in his or her growth and development.  By the end of the evaluation process, a new teacher will have had at least 27 official class observations and 27 one-on-one meetings with up to nine different people to talk about the teaching and learning happening in the new teacher’s classroom.  It is not uncommon for new Exeter teachers to also sit in on their colleagues’ classes every day for their first year or two on campus.

Compared to the Lakeside system of having two official evaluations in the first four years (plus some mentor visits in the first year), the Exeter process is an incredibly intensive.  Their focus is really on developing new hires into Harkness master teachers.  This evaluation system also provides some significant professional development for the tenured teachers in the department, because there is an expectation that each of them will help with the evaluation process.  Currently the Exeter science department has 17 tenured teachers and 3 new teachers (in their first four years), which means that each tenured teacher does an evaluation on average every couple of years.

In the past, tenured teachers were not subject to any additional evaluations of their own.  The Exeter faculty are in the process of adding an additional formative evaluation system for tenured teachers.

Weekly Meditation Period

Students and faculty/staff meet once a week for a 30 minute “Meditation” period (Thursdays from 9:50-10:20am).  Meditation takes place in the school chapel (Phillips Church).  It is an optional event, although the day we attended the chapel was packed with several hundred attendees.  Typically meditation involves some music and quiet time, and also a speech or presentation by a member of the community.  During the fall and winter terms, the meditation is given by a teacher or staff member.  In the spring term, students give all of the meditations.  The format and content of the talk is pretty open, with presentations on ideas, beliefs, philosophies, interests, hobbies, etc.

Phillips church ext

Phillips Church

The meditation that we attended was given by a senior student recounting her tremendous struggles with anorexia and other eating disorders.  Her narrative was compelling and almost poetic, and the audience was totally absorbed, hanging on her every word.  The experience was a powerful one for all involved.  Apparently all students practice writing a meditation in the winter of their senior year, and then a select number of them are chosen to actually present their meditation to the school.  Even though attendance is not required, many adults and students spoke very highly of this weekly event and said that they make a point to attend every time.  Meditation seems to be a powerful way that community is built and maintained at Exeter.

My trip to Exeter was enlightening, and inspired me to really think about “what good teaching is.”  Although Exeter is obviously a place of incredible financial resources, the fundamental ideas and philosophy of the Harkness method do not require expensive facilities or equipment.  But they do require a willingness to re-center the teacher-student balance within the classroom.


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Wisdom from Oregon Educators – Part II

Portland sign

I passed through Portland on my way to my next stop, visiting Luann, a chemistry teacher at NHS about 45 minutes away.  One of the things that impressed me about Luann is that despite being a highly experienced teacher, she embraces both new technology and new ideas in teaching high school science.  Many veteran teachers have become set in their ways and resistant to chance (I count myself in this pool, if I qualify as a veteran after only 15 years of teaching).  I originally met Luann through Twitter (she’s @stardiverr), a communication tool I have been spending a little time getting to know this year during my sabbatical.  I have to say that initially I was highly skeptical about Twitter as a useful tool for educators.  What can you say in 140 characters?  Don’t meaningful interactions with other people require personal contact (face-to-face or on the phone) or at least the expanded form of a letter, article, or email?  Don’t people on Twitter just talk about what they had for breakfast, or how many people are ahead of them in the Starbucks line?  Even if there were some interesting conversations out there, how could you even find the signal amidst the vast sea of noise?

It turns out that finding interesting people and intriguing tweets is easier than you might think, especially if you know the appropriate hashtags (thank you, #edchat and #scichat).  And although 140 characters go by in a blink, it’s easy to link to longer articles and blog posts, upload photos directly to Twitter, and have genuine back-and-forth conversations – especially with very large groups of people.  The real utility of Twitter is that all of this information is amazingly accessible, sortable, and searchable.  I had only been using Twitter for a couple weeks when I found an amazingly active and thoughtful community of high school chemistry teachers using tweets to share new ideas, ask questions, brainstorm solutions to problems, and sympathize over the common trials and tribulations of high school teaching.

So it was a treat to visit Luann after following her thoughts and ideas online.  The school that she teaches at is an interesting one.  It is a relatively large school that received a Gates Foundation grant to pursue a “small schools” model.  The small schools movement tries to capitalize on research which indicates that students in smaller schools often feel a greater sense of community and connection to their school, which can lead to a greater investment of time and effort yielding stronger academic returns.  NHS was split into four “small schools,” each with its own principal and faculty.  All four schools co-existing within the larger NHS campus.  The schools are not specialized by theme or discipline; they are designed primarily to give students and adults a closer-knit learning community.  While the small schools model has its benefits and drawbacks, Luann seems to think on the whole it is a good model for her school.

Watching her classes, I appreciated how naturally Luann and her students incorporated technology into the lessons.  The pH probes and laptops helped the students track the progress of their acid/base titrations.  Luann used a data projector and document camera to help the students visualize the process of balancing equations, and YouTube videos of interesting science demos to entertain her advisees.  In some schools I’ve visited, there seemed to be an emphasis on using of technology simply for the sake of using technology.  In Luann’s classes, technology is used in the service of learning.

A “cool idea I’m going to steal” is something I saw in her general chem class, and it involves students designing their own chemical reactions lab.  They have been studying types of chemical reactions, and as a capstone experience Luann is asking them to plan their own personal lab demonstrating seven different types of reactions (e.g. precipitation reactions, gas-forming reactions, single replacement, etc.).  Students may use any of several dozen authorized chemicals from the chem lab for their experiment.

List of chemicals

They must decide which chemicals to react with each other to make each reaction, and then submit a written plan to Luann for review along with the corresponding balanced chemical equations.  If she approves their plan, they then obtain small amounts of the correct chemicals and perform the reactions.  I love the fact that this experiment empowers students to really take responsibility for their own learning, and forces them to think critically and use deductive reasoning to figure out which combinations of chemicals will be safe and effective.

I left Oregon with lots of things to ponder, and a few concrete ideas to try with my own students next year.

* A note on privacy: Readers may have noticed that sometimes I identify people and their institutions with full names (e.g. Dr. David Reingold from Juniata College, Dr. Mike McBride from Yale), and other times I only use first names and/or initials (e.g. Luann at NHS, Bill at SHS).  In order to protect the privacy of teachers who are currently teaching middle or high school, I have chosen not to identify them by their full names.  These teachers did not ask me to visit their classrooms, but graciously agreed to host me and answer my many questions.  They may or may not want accounts of their classes and pictures of their classrooms plastered around the internet.  I have included full identifying information for retired teachers and current college or university professors.  This is a somewhat arbitrary decision, but one with which I feel comfortable.  If you would like contact information for any of the teachers not fully-identified, please email me.

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Wisdom from Oregon Educators – Part I

I spent a few days in NW Oregon last week, mostly visiting educators.  It was an enjoyable trip, and gave me a lot to think about.  My first stop was to visit Dr. David Reingold, a chemistry professor emeritus from Juniata College.  I sought out Dr. Reingold specifically because of the role he had in pioneering a unique chemistry program at Juniata College.

Almost all college chemistry sequences begin with a year of “general chemistry” in the freshman year, a course that typically covers atoms, bonding, periodicity, thermodynamics, equilibrium, acid/base chemistry, and the like.  This is the course that Advanced Placement Chemistry attempts to simulate for high school students.  High schoolers who pass the AP Chem exam are sometimes placed in a special semester-long “rapid review” course in general chemistry during their first year in college.  Upon completion of general chemistry, students who continue their studies in chemistry usually take a full year organic chemistry course as a sophomore (or junior).

While there are a few reasons why ‘general chemistry’ is taught as the introductory course, there is no fundamental reason that it has to be that way.  A couple decades ago, professors at Juniata began to think about their chemistry program from the viewpoint of their students.  While a few of the students who enrolled in general and organic chemistry went on to become chemistry majors and professional chemists, they were by far the minority.  Most of the seats in these classes were filled by biology majors, pre-med and pre-vet students, and future environmental scientists and biomedical engineers.  Despite the fact that most of their audience were not destined to be academic chemists, the general and organic courses were all taught by academic chemists largely in the context of chemistry as a discipline (as opposed to, say, how and why chemistry might be useful to a biologist).  And the course that was most useful to biology and pre-med students, organic chemistry, was taught second in the sequence.  Taking organic chemistry as sophomores delayed the studies of these students, since many upper level biology courses (e.g. biochemistry, genetics) have an organic chem pre-requisite.

General chemistry is also the more mathematically rigorous course, requiring a great facility with functions (at the precal to calculus level), exponents and scientific notation, and logarithms.  Some entering students at Juniata had an extensive chemistry background in high school and were well-prepared in math, while others had a weaker math background and little high school chemistry.  The great diversity of student background and preparation in math and science made pitching a freshman general chem course at the appropriate level challenging.

Dr. Reingold and his colleagues decided to try a radical redesigning of their chemistry program.  They would offer organic chemistry first to all freshman who wanted to take chemistry, and incorporate within this new course some significant biological applications to show how organic is relevant to other scientific disciplines.  While general chemistry is often considered a pre-requisite for organic, there aren’t that many topics from gen chem that are critical to understanding organic.  However, there are a few (e.g. bonding and intermolecular forces, equilibrium, and acid/base), and the re-designed organic course began with an introduction to these subjects.  The addition of a few general chem topics and the incorporation of items relevant to biology and medicine inevitably meant less room in the organic course for some traditional content.  Some of the more technical reactions and more obscure topics had to be left out of the course (goodbye, Hell-Volhard-Zelinski Reaction).  While it may seem obvious to an 18 year-old pre-med student that understanding the chemistry of protein folding is more important than selective alpha-bromination of carboxylic acids,  these decisions were harder for the chemistry professors.  I salute their bold decision to try something completely new.  Implementing a radically different sequence and curriculum for the first two years was a big risk, and involved a great deal of effort on behalf of the chemistry faculty.  And perhaps more importantly, it forced them to step outside their comfort zone.  But they were willing to make the change because they thought it would benefit students.

There were, of course, no textbooks available for students taking an introductory chemistry course that focused on organic.  To support his students in their new course, Dr. Reingold wrote a text for them.  It’s called Organic Chemistry: An Introductory Text Emphasizing Biological Connections.  It’s a delightful book, written in a conversational style.  It makes organic concepts accessible to the introductory student without dumbing down the content.  You can order a copy from McGraw Hill or Amazon.


I found Dr. Reingold’s discussion of the course development and his philosophy fascinating, and I share his interest in making organic chemistry (and its many applications) available to a wider audience.  In many places organic chemistry has the reputation of being an incredibly difficult course filled with technical and esoteric knowledge – a “weed-out course” that serves principally to keep some students out of certain majors (or medical school).  While I acknowledge that this is how organic is presented in many colleges and universities, there is really nothing intrinsically difficult about organic chemistry.  And it has enormous relevance to the average American’s daily life.  Except for water, almost every molecule in the human body is organic.  Organic chemistry describes how your DNA replicates and proteins are made.  It explains how aspirin works, and gives clues to making the next generation of anti-cancer drugs.  Organic chemists are involved in studying and making the dye and fabric in your clothes, the rubber in your shoes and car tires, the Teflon on your skillet, the gasoline (or biodiesel) in your tank, and the plastic containers that hold everything from milk to medicines.  Organic chemistry describes how that soup and sandwich you had for lunch are converted into energy for your body, how soap is made and why it cleans, how Kevlar stops bullets despite being much less dense than steel, and why your oil-and-vinegar salad dressing separates.  These are some of the topics that I explore in my high school organic chemistry class, another class that attempts to introduce students to organic before their sophomore year in college.

In addition to talking to Dr. Reingold about the development of Juniata’s “organic first” curriculum, we also discussed a bit about his approach to teaching.  When I asked him directly “what is good teaching,” he thought for a while and then responded that a better question might be “what is good learning?”  This response further illustrates his philosophy that the student experience really matters, and should in fact be a central part of any course.  He spoke about “learning to think like a molecule” – in other words, being able to comprehend chemistry based on understanding the world at the molecular level.  What was happening to that molecule?  What forces were acting on it?  How does its conformation and geometry affect its behavior and reactivity?  What is the energy associated with the molecule, and how does this energy change?

Dr. Reingold also worked to make his classes as interactive as possible.  Since he had turned most of his lecture material into the textbook for the class, he felt that it was redundant to lecture again after assigning a reading from his book.  So, many of his classes involved students working together in groups.  Often there was a student who had completed the class the year before present in each group to help guide the discussion.  He also used personal clickers (like these) to pose questions to students and gather real-time, aggregated responses.

I was intrigued by the group quizzes that Dr. Reingold gave, using something called Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT).  Students are placed in small groups, and then given multiple choice quizzes with special answer sheets.  Before answering, all of the students in the group must agree on the answer.  Instead of places for shading-in a bubble, the answer sheets have a thin coating covering each answer choice.  When the students come to consensus, they “scratch off” the corresponding answer on the sheet with a coin (think of those scratch-off lotto tickets).  If the answer is correct, they get immediate feedback that they came to the correct conclusion.  The sheet also tells the students if the answer is wrong, and they then have the opportunity to discuss the question again and choose another answer.  This way, the group knows that they have answered every question correctly by the end of class, and the instructor can see which questions gave which students trouble (and potentially grade them accordingly, if it is a formal assessment).  There is a lot of educational psychology research indicating that immediate feedback is the most valuable kind, although this is often difficult to achieve in large group settings.  Dr. Reingold’s addition of the group aspect adds an interactive discussion component that increases the value of the activity.  In this way, it is as much a learning episode as an assessment episode.  I am definitely going to try this idea when I get back to Lakeside next year.

My conversation with Dr. Reingold was enjoyable and illuminating, and will provide food for thought for years to come.  You can contact him (and find his chemistry songs and raps!) at his website, and read more about chemistry at Juniata College here and here.

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9th Grade Cancer Researchers

Chemists at work

I visited my friend Bill at SHS again last week.  You might remember him from this post from November in which I described the STEM program he helped to start.  As part of the STEM initiative, students investigate real-world problems and use literature and laboratory research to try to uncover real-world answers to these problems.  Over the past few weeks they have been studying cancer, and one question that they have been trying to answer is “How can chemotherapy treatment single out just cancerous cells in the body while leaving healthy cells alone?”

This topic has the potential to grab students right away.  Even 9th graders usually know someone touched by cancer: a friend, relative, or neighbor.  And the question is a subtle and complex one.  Basic chemotherapy usually involves introducing a cytotoxin (a chemical that damages or kills cells) into the body.  Because cancer cells grow much more rapidly than most other cells, they are more affected by the cytotoxin than normal cells and (in the best case scenarios) the cancer cells die while the normal cells survive.  Unfortunately in most cases healthy cells are also affected by chemo, especially those that grow and divide rapidly – like cells that make skin and hair (which is why chemo can cause hair loss).  An ideal treatment would target ONLY cancerous cells, and leave healthy cells alone.  This is the kind of treatment that Bill’s students began to investigate.

Bill and his kids got some important help from Dr. A.J. Boydston, a Chemistry Professor at the University of Washington.  Among many other things, Dr. Boydston studies polymers which can form micelles – large molecules that can aggregate together to form a kind of cage.  The idea is that you could build a custom molecular cage to hold, for example, a cytotoxic chemotherapy drug.  Then you could inject the caged drug into the patient.  As long as the drug is trapped inside the cage, it won’t harm any cells.  The key is to build a cage that remains closed as it bumps into normal cells, but springs open if it encounters a cancerous one to release the drug and kill the cell.

But how can you build a molecular cage that can remain ‘sealed’ for period of time, and then spring open?  And how can it tell a cancerous cell from a healthy one?  These are questions that Bill and his students explored, with the help of Dr. Boydston.  It turns out that if you vary the building blocks (monomers) of the polymers, you can change the properties of the micelle cages that are formed.  Some polymers will create cages that open in the presence of acid or base.  Some will open when exposed to ultraviolet light or ultrasonic agitation.  The students set out to design and create different polymers using different monomer building blocks.

polymer sheets

The Boydston Lab provided the actual, synthesized polymers – the same ones that they are using for their professional research.  Then the students began testing the different polymer cages to see under what circumstances they remained closed, and when they opened to release their contents.  Instead of using actual poisonous cytotoxins, the students used a dye called Nile Red to simulate the behavior of a chemotherapy drug.  Nile Red fluoresces under the action of UV light when trapped inside the micelle, but it does not when it is released into an aqueous environment.  Thus the students could use UV light to see if the “drug” was successfully trapped in the micelle, and when it came out.


Various student groups tested different conditions to see exactly when the micelles opened and when they did not.  Medical research on actual tumors indicates that many of them are more acidic that normal tissue by as much as 1 pH unit (a factor of 10 in acid concentration!), so polymer micelles that open in acid might be promising.  Doctors and researches are also experimenting with next-generation powerful light sources.  Micelles that open when exposed to a certain frequency of light could be useful if doctors can pin-point particular cancerous areas and illuminate them appropriately.


While Bill and A.J. were on hand to answer questions and supervise the experiments, I was impressed with how the students took responsibility for their own investigations.  They had to really think about what they should do at each step in the lab, and what the results meant for their particular polymer.  At the end of the experiment, the students had to write up their research in the form of an academic poster, a format familiar to real scientists, professors, and grad students.


This was a super-ambitious project for 9th graders, and I was impressed with how well Bill, A.J., and their colleagues pulled it off.  It was exciting for the students to work with actual research equipment and actual research polymers that may be approved for therapeutic use in humans within this decade.  They dug deeply into the concept of experimental design, and had to understand a host of complicated chemical concepts from acid/base chemistry to intermolecular forces, and to use those ideas in concert.  While some of the more detailed intricacies of the science were a bit beyond the comprehension of these 9th graders, the basic principles were well within their grasp – as was the realization that science can be a powerful tool for good, and that they are capable of using that tool themselves.

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Two Excellent Schools, Worlds Apart – Part II

A couple days after my visit to Groton, I found myself weaving through the crazy NYC commute on my way to the Bronx High School of Science.

Bronx Science

Bronx Science is a science and math magnet school that is part of the New York City public school system.  Eighth graders in NYC can take a specialized entrance exam for one of the city’s eight elite magnet schools.  Gaining admission to Bronx Science is tough – only 5% of the students taking the test earn a spot.  Despite taking only a sliver of the total applicant pool, Bronx Science is crowded.  At over 3000 students, it is almost ten times the size of Groton, and is housed in a single building in the north Bronx.

I was met at the entrance by a beautiful Venetian glass mosaic, a peaceful 9/11 Memorial Garden, and two armed police officers staffing the main security substation who checked my ID and verified that I was expected.

The mosaic shows famous figures from science, from Archimedes to Galileo to Marie Curie.  Above them loom what looked to me like the gods of physics, chemistry, and biology.


The quotation below it reads, “Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.”

The 9/11 Garden remembers Bronx Science graduates who died in the September 11th attacks.

9/11 Garden

Also in the lobby area I saw a poster celebrating a Bronx Science grad who recently won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  Eight alumni from this school have won a Nobel Prize in science (the other seven in Physics).  Not bad when your high school has more Nobel’s than Australia….

Nobel Prize Poster

After I was finally cleared to go upstairs, I was escorted to the Chemistry Department.  Yes, Chemistry has its very own department here (along with its own assistant principal) – and with 13 full-time chemistry teachers, a full-fledged Chemistry Department does not seem excessive.  It was here in one of the chemistry offices that I met Lauren, a young teaching dynamo with whom I spent the rest of the day trying to keep up.

Despite being obviously very busy, Lauren took a generous amount of time to tell me about the school and the science program.  Chemistry is a required course at Bronx Science (along with Biology and Physics).  And every chemistry student is required to pass the New York State Regents Exam at the end of the course, a standardized test measuring his or her understanding of topics covered in the class.  Students who don’t pass the test don’t pass the class and must repeat it.

Of course Regents Chemistry (or Honors Regents Chemistry) is just the beginning for most students at Bronx Science.  They typically take the introductory course as 9th or 10th graders.  In their later years, students can move on to Advanced Placement (AP) Chem and then optionally Organic Chemistry and/or Analytical Chemistry.  These upper level classes cover much of the material found in a normal college freshman and college sophomore chemistry program.  I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in on a number of these classes to see what they are like.  The classes I watched tended to be fairly traditional in style, with teachers lecturing from the blackboard and students sitting in rows. But there was quite a bit of back-and-forth Q&A, and the students were engaged in every class.  There was also time for students to consult with each other in pairs and discuss the concept, a nice way to add student interactivity in classes that usually had student enrollments in the mid-30s.  The classes were well organized, quickly paced, and finely structured, with no wasted time.

I was impressed with how robust the laboratory program was, despite the space and budget limitations that were in place.  Many chemistry classes at Bronx Science do lab once a week or more, thanks in part to the generous contact time allocated to science classes.  While a standard period is only 40 minutes, most Chemistry classes meet between 7 and 10 times a week!  So the AP Chem class, for example, meets every day Monday through Friday for 80 minutes.  And while the lab spaces are crowded, most students seem to work very well in this environment.

Gen Chem Lab

Larger classes mean that students work with less individual oversight from the teacher.  While this could be viewed as a negative, in fact it seems to have taught these students to be independent and self-reliant.  They worked with confidence and efficiency, and when they got stuck they first tried to get themselves unstuck rather than run to the teacher at the first sign of trouble.  Occasionally, they would seek help from a classmate when they were uncertain or confused about something.  Rather than merely provide the answer, most of their peers gave the same kind of response that their teacher might:

“What do YOU think you should do about it?”

“Well, think about it – will your endpoint be acidic or basic?”

“Read your handout, dumb-butt.”

Well, almost the same kind of response.

The bell eventually rang, and I eased my way out into the crushing mass of teens all struggling to squeeze their way past the throngs to their next class.  I snapped a few photos along the way which give clues to some of the extensive independent research that students here engage in:

Student Research

Construction of Crystalline Metal Organic Frameworks as a Potential Hydrogen Fuel Cell Storage Matrix?  As a high schooler?  Wow.

And this:

Reactions Journal

Yes, they have a student-written and edited Physical Sciences Journal.  Double wow.

I found Analytical Chemistry – like all rooms and all offices, the lab was locked until Lauren arrived with the key.  Watching her Analytical Chemistry lab was a treat.  Seventeen teams of two students crammed into the advanced chem laboratory, and were immediately at work.

Advanced Chem Lab

Those little glass enclosures are how you can provide hood space (to vent toxic or smelly gases) for 34 kids simultaneously.  Lauren’s students are engaged in a week-long project to see which commercial antacid neutralizes the most stomach acid for the least amount of money.


These students were all upperclassmen, and took this lab very seriously.  They aimed for extreme precision and accuracy, using primary standards and volumetric equipment to carefully calibrate their acid and base titrants.  Lauren has built an impressive curriculum for this class from scratch, based partly on her own lab experience as an undergrad.  I am planning on stealing several of her awesome-sounding labs (she generously offered to send me handouts of anything).  My favorites included: Concentration of Dye in Gatorade, Determination of Calcium by Titration with a Chelating Ligand, Amount of Phosphoric Acid in Cola, and Investigation of Buffers in Lemonade.  I love the demanding, sophisticated nature of these labs coupled with their investigation of common, everyday items like antacids, Gatorade, calcium supplements, lemonade, and Coke.

When their investigation is complete, each student will write an elaborate and professional lab report.  Lauren pulled one out for me to look at from last week’s lab.  It was nearly 10 pages, and from scanning through it I believe it would have earned a favorable grade from my college lab TA at Yale.

I handed the report back to Lauren and asked how she handled the workload.  With classes of 30-40 students, courses that meet 7-10 times a week, lab reports that approach the length of feature articles in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, and a daily NYC commute from hell, this seemed a lot to put on the shoulders of someone still her 20s.  Oh, and I forgot to mention that she is one of the lead teachers for the intro chem classes, and is helping to mentor the seven new chemistry teachers (most of whom are new to teaching).  She just smiled.  “It can be hard sometimes.”  This is obviously someone who loves her job.

I should mention at this point that despite some very different challenges, the teachers at Groton are no less busy or less dedicated.  While they enjoy small classes, a small department (i.e. two total teachers) means that the Groton chemistry teachers often each teach three different courses: intro, AP, and a STEM course that meets for double periods.  And when the Bronx Science teachers are shoveling their lab reports into their briefcases for the drive or ride home, Groton teachers are off to sports practice (coaching is part of the expectation there).  Then they might supervise a club, attend an evening school event, and then spend the next several hours on dorm duty.  They live on campus, eat every meal with the students, and are available literally 24-7.

So my hat is off to all of the very talented and dedicated teachers I met last week.  I again came away from my visits impressed and inspired.

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Up until this point, I have focused most of my Big Year on observing the natural world and seeing birds and other wild critters.  But as Labor Day passed, and schools all over the country have resumed their academic schedule, I have started to think more seriously about the other half of my Big Year: the search for good teaching.  I have to say, I’m not entirely sure how to approach blogging about good teaching and good teachers – there is an element of privacy and discretion that I want to consider carefully.  I also don’t want to  set myself up as some kind of judge or arbiter of what is “good teaching” (and conversely what is not!).  But I also want to share a few of my musings and thoughts on the matter as I visit various schools and teachers this year.

Yale is a bit of an odd choice to begin my exploration of good teaching, considering that I am primarily interested in teaching at the secondary (i.e. high school) level.  And while there are some excellent professors at Yale, many of them are known more for their expert scholarly research than for their teaching prowess.  But I was passing through the area, and felt a strong attraction to return to the place where I first discovered my own passion for teaching.  It would also give me the opportunity to interview one of the most influential teachers in my own life, Dr. J. Michael McBride, professor of chemistry.  For the past several decades, Dr. McBride has taught a freshman organic chemistry course, one that I took myself in the early 1990s, and later returned to as a senior to help tutor struggling students.

This is Sterling Chemistry Laboratory, the building where I learned chemistry at Yale, and the place where Dr. McBride still keeps his office.

While McBride’s class did include most of the concepts you’d find in a “standard” organic class like stereochemistry, nucleophilic attack, and resonance stabilization, he also spent a great deal of time trying to teach more fundamental lessons.  A major theme for the course is “How do you know?”  And not just how do you KNOW, but HOW do you know, and also how do YOU know?  Professor McBride shared with us a historical perspective on how we know what we know in science – a perspective that renders insight into how science operates, and what is “good science” and what is not.  There are “no rigid rules about what constitutes good science or bad,” he said, which is why it is so important for students to “develop good taste” for what makes convincing evidence.  Dr. McBride hopes that as a result of his class, students will learn to “distrust assertions” and instead make full use of their reasoning abilities and knowledge of science.

Another thing that made Dr. McBride’s class different than many other organic classes was his emphasis on learning the basic tenets of quantum mechanics and molecular orbital theory.  While these topics seemed mind-blowingly sophisticated to our 18 year-old brains at the time (and of seemingly little relevance to organic chemistry), we soon began to see how they could be used to truly understand organic structures and reactions on a deep level.  With a solid appreciation for MO theory, we didn’t have to simply memorize the dozens and dozens of basic organic reactions – we could predict and intuit for ourselves what would happen when two molecules react.  This approach turned out to be immensely powerful, not only for learning organic chemistry, but more broadly to convey the idea that the natural world is built on logical, understandable truths.  And if you are able to master these truths, you can understand and accurately describe a great deal about the world around us.

Anyone can watch the lectures associated with the first semester of Professor McBride’s course – they are available through the Open Yale Program here.  And while only people with a deep interest in chemistry will likely be interested in the session on “Stereotopicity and Baeyer Strain Theory,” almost anyone might enjoy his opening lesson on “How Do You Know?” or some of the later ones on the historical development of chemistry.

I spent a couple of days at Yale, visiting old professors and mentors, touring the campus, and even coincidentally running into one of my former Lakeside students on the way to her research lab in Sterling!  My walks around campus also allowed me to reflect on what I thought “good teaching” was when I first started down the road to being a teacher myself in the 1990s.

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