AACT Member Spotlight: Katy Dornbos

By AACT on February 2, 2021

Katy Dornbos

Every month AACT spotlights a passionate member who is dedicated to enhancing chemistry inside and outside the classroom. This month we spotlight Katy Dornbos. She teaches chemistry and physics at Norris High School in Firth, Nebraska.

Tell us about yourself.

I waffled between majoring in science and music. I now teach science but still sing and play piano at church—I even played for the high school musical a couple of times. I like to run, and have a goal of a PR in the half marathon in 2021 (this will hold me to it!). I also like to bike, spend time outside, play with my nieces and nephew, and sit around campfires or porches with friends and family with no agenda aside from being together. I'm 100% "early to bed early to rise", and I love my mornings and love coffee.

Why did you become a teacher? Did you always want to teach?

I became a teacher because of teachers I love. Three out of my four grandparents, my mother, my sister, and some of my aunts and uncles are teachers. I fell in love with science; not just the content, but teaching it. My own high school chemistry teacher, Dianne Epp, my cooperating teacher, Bob Curtright, and colleagues at my schools have only furthered and confirmed my love of teaching chemistry to students. I continue to teach because I love giving students opportunities to grow in self-awareness and self-confidence through learning science.

Share a story from your past that led to your choosing your field of work.

I went to college pre-med nutrition science and dietetics. Between my junior and senior years, I worked at a nursing home, and there I learned that I did NOT want to work in health care. This was a crucial moment for me: realizing that I liked science and I liked people, but the nature of a physician-patient relationship did not interest me as much as the nature of a teacher-student relationship. I remain grateful for that fateful summer—and grateful for those folks who ARE gifted to work in healthcare.

What topic do you find hardest for students? How do you teach it?

Helping students use and/or calculate molarity in the (seemingly) endless ways it shows up (dilutions, titrations, preparing solutions, ion concentration, stoichiometry). Still taking ideas (that's you, reader!). In recent years, I've found some success in holding up a beaker of food colored water labeled "6M" and ask "what's the molarity?" Then I dump half of it out and ask "what's the molarity?" and keep going to help students understand the proportional nature of molarity.

Using the POGIL on molarity has helped students understand the concept further. This year, I'm looking forward to using POGIL again as well as connecting two corners at a time of Johnstone's triangle...we'll see how it goes!

What is your approach to building a meaningful relationship with your students and their parents?

I have students write a note to their lab partners to let them know what they appreciate about working with them.

Around Thanksgiving many years, I have students write or text their parents or an adult in their life thanking them for something specific. It's a mutually beneficial exercise for students and adults!

Every now and then, I require students to present something to their parents and for the parents to fill out a form. I love the idea of students taking chemistry home. During quarantine, with some kitchen chemistry labs, family members were often involved. Once a quarter or so, I send out emails to parents, thanking them for the privilege of spending time with their child. I encourage parents in their noble and sometimes difficult task of raising teenagers, letting them know how much I enjoy my time with their child.

How do you monitor the progress of your students? How do you ensure underperformers excel?

I offer weekly 8-12 point quizzes online. Open-note, open-worksheet. These confirm that the students are keeping up with the material.

Then, my recent favorite, and something I'm proud of, is the assessment process. First, students receive a take-home test about 5-7 days before the exam. On exam day, students are asked questions about the take-home test. Questions like "Explain why #1a on your take-home test is wrong. If we were to remove 3 protons from #5, how would that change your answer? If Rutherford would have observed that 50% of the alpha particles bounced back, what would that have told him about the atom?"

I have been free to ask students way more in-depth questions. Students are less stressed, and doing better on exams, even when the questions are more difficult!

In three words, what would your students say they learned from you?

Detail, enthusiasm, authenticity.

Why did you become involved with AACT and what are the benefits of being involved?

I became involved in AACT because I won a membership at ChemEd 2019 in Illinois! But since then, I have come to appreciate the research-based nature of what AACT shares. I just finished my last chemistry graduate class, so having an avenue to be exposed to new pedagogy in chemistry education is invaluable to me and my students.

What you do to remain current and bring the latest science into the classroom?

Belong to AACT. Keep up with the ChemEd community on Twitter. Attend chemistry education conferences. Take classes at the graduate level in chemistry and chemistry education. Honestly, Chem Twitter is the most consistent PD around for me. Daily ideas, encouragement, feedback, etc. We're all better off for knowing one another, and are definitely looking forward to a reunion post-Covid!

What fuels your passion for science and teaching?

My students. Seeing my students head with confidence into science-related fields reminds me that these little moments hidden in a classroom do indeed make a difference!

Other educators. For four summers, I was involved with KICKS (a grant-funded program in Nebraska), twice as a participant, twice as an instructor. It's two weeks of "best of the best" in a content area, where the teachers (participants) go through a crash course in astronomy or chemistry or physics, etc. We're equally focused on *what* we teach and *how* we teach it. It's the best PD I've been involved with, and the friendships made there sustain me in my profession.

What are you most proud of in your work?

I'm proud of the ways I've encouraged students to see chemistry in the world at large. I love connecting our students to the community (for the sake of both the students and the community members). We've held chemistry Olympics (Chem-couver and Rio de Chem-iero). We've brought the atomic world to life around our school through subatomic drawings of common objects. Students have called and interviewed professionals in engineering, public health, medicine, research, environmental studies, etc. to examine how chemistry might work with other sectors of our society to solve challenges. We've competed in WashU's chemistry tournament. We have had chemistry service projects: we made "shower de-scalers" for the staff at our school and held "days in the lab" for 5th graders. Next year, some students are hoping to start a composting program with our school lunches, and I'm all in support of that!

If you could pass on one word of wisdom to other chemists what would it be?

There is value in learning to explain what you do in a way that anyone can understand. People can always ask more questions to discover more detail about what you do, but explaining it in a detailed, simple way is important and makes others around you feel smarter!