AACT Member Spotlight: Melissa Hemling

By AACT on April 5, 2023

Melissa Hemling

Every month AACT spotlights a passionate member who is dedicated to enhancing chemistry inside and outside the classroom. This month, we spotlight Melissa Hemling. She teaches chemistry and AP Chemistry at Beaver Dam High School in Beaver Dam, WI.

Tell us about yourself.

I am a National Board Certified science teacher. I teach AP Chemistry and Pre-AP Chemistry at Beaver Dam High School and serve as the Science Department Chair. I am a ChemEdX contributor and an AP Reader for the AP Chemistry Exam. Process-Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) is a passion of mine. I was part of the High School POGIL Initiative (HSPI) team and am currently writing activities for the newest edition of POGIL books.

I enjoy being a wife to a supportive husband and a mom to a second grader, a middle schooler, and a high schooler. We spend most of the week finding creative ways to feed and chauffeur our kids to their different practices and events. We enjoy living in the country, raising 75 chickens to show at the county fair, and visiting a new state every summer.

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

All students have strengths in and out of the classroom. I try to find my students' strengths and highlight them when I greet them at the door, see them at school events, or have conversations with them. Being excited for them and cheering them on goes a long way. I try to have as many positive interactions with home as possible. I always try to have a positive team approach with families if a student’s behavior is making it hard for them to be successful.

While I proactively spend the first month of school building a positive classroom culture, I strive to reinforce it throughout the school year with chemistry-themed brain break games. I use simple games like the TikTok pouring water challenge to get students moving around and laughing with each other while still sneaking in chemistry principles like intermolecular forces.

I feel it is important students see the connection between chemistry and their lives. I love encouraging students to share their knowledge with others through selfie challenges. For example, if we are talking about acids and bases in class, students are encouraged to take a selfie with an acid (a bottle of orange juice) and one other person outside of class. The hope is that when they take the picture with the orange juice, they will discuss chemistry with the other person and solidify the connection between acids and their everyday life. When they share the selfie with me, it opens up great relationship-building conversations with the student.

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

Chemistry can be challenging for students since the changes students see in the lab are caused by invisible molecule behavior. Thinking about Johnstone’s Triangle (highlighting the connections between the macroscale and particulate scale as well as symbolic and graphical representations) when lesson planning is helpful ensuring all my students find success in chemistry. I love using the seven large whiteboards that surround my room for “whiteboarding sessions,” where students display multiple representations (particle, symbolic, graphical, etc.) of their mental models of phenomena. Listening to students discuss their mental models with their peers helps me plan and ensure my next lesson will help them develop more scientifically accurate models over time.

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

I became involved with AACT to join an active network of innovative chemistry teachers. I enjoy learning from other AACT chemistry teachers through AACT’s professional development and published lessons. I have enjoyed sharing my own experiences presenting at AACT-hosted conferences and publishing lessons as part of the AP Chemistry Content Team. I have participated in the Science Coaches program for many years. Through Science Coaches, my students engage in unique citizen-science experiences with engineers, pharmacists, and cancer drug researchers. Not only does AACT help me bring real-world chemistry to my students, but they also help me find more effective and engaging ways to teach chemistry to my students.

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

I join networks like AACT, ChemEdX, and social media groups on Facebook and Twitter to remain current. I love when the virtual #chemfam world is able to meet in person at BCCE and ChemEd conferences. I have found the chemistry education community to be supportive, reflective, and fun-loving! There are so many new ideas and different ways of teaching chemistry shared online. It is amazing but at the same time, it can be overwhelming. Sometimes I need to reset by reminding myself that teaching is not a sprint but a marathon and pace accordingly.

What are you most proud of in your work?

I am most proud when I see moments of pure joy in my students. Sometimes it is because they finally believe they can learn chemistry, and I see a boost in confidence and perseverance. Other times I might catch a student's eyes light up at a discrepant event. It is something I cherish because many professions do not get opportunities to witness pure joy.

I am also proud of the successes my students have after they leave my classroom. My former students always seem to know the right time to reach out to me and give me a “boost” to get through a hard week.

In 2009 I was honored to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) for Wisconsin and was able to meet President Barack Obama. Talking with President Obama and having him congratulate me personally was an experience I will never forget.