The Art of Science Teaching

Legions of teachers do amazing work with an incredible mix of young people every school day. Very few people are aware of just how amazing.

I’ve been hired by an independent middle school to help nine faculty strengthen their teaching, develop individual professional development plans, and map the school’s curriculum. Groovy stuff.

Last week I observed a former public high school science teacher who has a reputation for spending an inordinate amount of time in his classroom. A pro, who probably outworks every critic who think teachers have it easy, he spends his summers with other teacher leaders at a midwest university writing case studies and teaching other science educators how to teach them.

The class I observed was sublime. The unit is “Osmosis and Diffusion.” The case, based on true events, was titled “Agony & Ecstasy”. It revolved around three college friends who took their fourth friend to the emergency room after she started foaming at the mouth and shaking uncontrollably the morning after a party. The students assumed the role of the medical intern who had to figure out what was wrong with the sick woman. They thought of important questions to ask the friends, first by themselves, then with a partner, and then as a group. Had their friend been behaving oddly before the party? What was her prior medical history? Did she use alcohol or drugs at the party?

Eventually, the students learned they used Ecstasy at the party the previous night. After a short explanation of brain cells during which the teacher used his fingers, hands, and arms to illustrate how neuro transmitters work, the students logged onto Mouse Party, a University of Utah website designed for middle and high school students to learn about how drugs affect the brain. Using information found on Mouse Party the students filled out a data table on how Ecstasy works and listed what else they needed to know in order to figure out why the young woman was so sick.

Next the class will examine her blood work and learn about why salt/water imbalances lead to tissue and brain swelling. In the end, they’ll learn the young woman drank a tremendous amount of water to blunt the drug’s impact and suffered from hyponatremia.

This brief description of the class doesn’t begin to capture the teacher’s skill. He brilliantly tapped the students’ prior knowledge without getting bogged down on too many tangents, he grouped the students so that they’d work well together, he continually checked in on how each group was doing, and he modeled continuous learning by saying things like “I don’t know” and “You know what I’m curious about”. And he used technology so effortlessly that you may not have even thought about it had you been observing.

Best of all, he really wants my help in getting even better. And there’s always ways to improve. Every class, every day. Among a couple of other ideas, I suggested he “sell” the case better by putting one or more of the students names in it and by explaining that it’s an emergency situation so they have to work especially hard to solve it within two class periods. The only limit to enlivening it, I said, was his creativity. His eyes widened and he started talking excitedly about working with the theater teacher and incorporating props.

I had to wait to conference with him because Claire’s lizard had died the night before. He listened patiently, and repeated, “I’m so sorry.” He and Claire discussed the bad things that happen in lizards’ stomachs when they eat sand. He told her he was going to bring a lizard to the classroom so that her friend and her could have a positive experience. “What kind?” she asked. “A gecko lizard,” he explained.

She left without thanking him, but that didn’t ruffle his feathers. He’s used to it.