AACT Member Spotlight: Michael Farabaugh

By AACT on August 31, 2023

Michael Farabaugh

Every month AACT spotlights a passionate member who is dedicated to enhancing chemistry inside and outside the classroom. This month, we spotlight Michael Farabaugh. He is the 2023–2024 AACT President and Governing Board Chair. He teaches chemistry and AP Chemistry at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, VA.

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

I have been a member of AACT ever since its launch in 2014. I first heard about AACT from Barbara Sitzman at the AP Reading. Barbara had served as president on the inaugural Governing Board. I became involved with AACT because I wanted to network with and learn from other teachers. I also wanted to share my ideas so I could give back to the chemistry education community. In 2014, I wrote an article on student engagement for Chemistry Solutions. I have had the chance to co-host a webinar on assessment with Linda Cummings and to co-host a webinar on AP Chemistry with Paul Price. The benefits of AACT membership include numerous classroom resources, webinars, free downloads from the Journal of Chemical Education and other ACS publications, articles from Chemistry Solutions, the ChemMatters archive, the ChemClub program, and the Science Coaches program.

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

Some topics can be challenging for students when they involve particle-level events. I’m reminded of an article written by Ben Meacham for ChemEdX entitled, “Why Do You Make Us Draw so Many Particle Diagrams?”

In addition to showing my students many particle diagrams, I also ask them to draw them to help me visualize the pictures in their heads. I also try to use analogies to help them understand what’s happening at the particle level. I’ll share two examples of analogies that I use in my classroom.

When I teach about intermolecular forces, I show my students this video in which a large flock of starlings produces a dazzling display of twisting patterns in the sky. This is known as a murmuration. After showing the video, I ask my students the following question: Would it be more exciting to watch a flock of 5 birds or a flock of 5,000 birds? They respond with “5,000.”

This analogy is my way of introducing the concept of London dispersion forces. I tell them to imagine that an electron cloud is like a flock of birds. The larger the number of birds in the flock, the more likely we will see random distortions and shapes in the sky. The larger the number of electrons in an electron cloud, the more likely that the electron cloud can be distorted or polarized. I teach them that the size of an electron cloud is related to its polarizability and the relative strength of the London dispersion forces between atoms and molecules.

When I introduce periodic trends such as atomic radius and ionization energy, I tell my students “The Story of the Keys and the Kidney.” I developed this story to provide an analogy for the process of removing an electron from an atom. After I tell them the story, I ask them which item--the keys or the kidney--is easier to remove from me? They respond with “keys.”

Then I say that the keys are easier to remove from me because they are located farther away from my center (or my nucleus). This analogy is my way of illustrating that electrons are easier to remove when they are located at a greater distance from the atomic nucleus.

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

I ask lots of formative assessment questions during class so that my students will get practice with the types of questions that they will need to answer at the end of a unit. I walk around the classroom, observing and listening, trying to gather evidence of understanding or misconceptions. One of my favorite instructional techniques is to show examples of wrong or incomplete answers so that students can see the difference between the correct answer and the “not quite right” answer. I make sure to be available for students to ask questions during class and outside of class. I create lots of explanation videos on YouTube to help my students confirm that they have mastered the material or to help them correct their mistakes. On the day of a summative assessment, I say, “You should experience a lot of déjà vu on this test!”

What fuels your passion for science and teaching?

I enjoy teaching chemistry because it is both fun and challenging. I encourage my students to pay attention to important details, to practice solving problems and answering questions, and to stay curious about the properties of matter. It makes me happy to observe my students as they make that exciting transition from “huh?” to “aha!”

What are you most proud of in your work?

When I look back over the past 25 years, it makes me proud to realize that my skills in both instruction and assessment have gradually improved. I’m both proud and grateful that I have formed strong connections with a diverse network of wonderful chemistry teachers from all over the country.