AACT Member Spotlight: Patricia DeCoster

By AACT on January 3, 2024

Patricia DeCoster

Every month AACT spotlights a passionate member who is dedicated to enhancing chemistry inside and outside the classroom. This month, we spotlight Patricia DeCoster. She teaches chemistry at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT.

Tell us about yourself.

I retired in 2022 from 33 years in education, both as a teacher and administrator. Originally from Hawaii, I received an AFROTC scholarship to attend Occidental College in Los Angeles. I received a BS in Biochemistry and an MS in Biology. I began teaching high school in California in 1983 and moved to Connecticut in 1998. I have been an active member of NSTA, CSTA, and AACT. I am a board member of DKG (an honorary women’s educational organization) and our local retired teachers group here in Bridgeport. Received my EdD in educational leadership in 2017 from the University of Connecticut. Currently, I teach part-time as an adjunct professor in the chemistry department at Sacred Heart University. I have two wonderful sons, and one is a high school science teacher. I love to sail, fish, read and watch the sunset. The slower pace of retirement suits me just fine!

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

My first ambition was to be a researcher and earn a PhD in biochemistry. After I completed my master's coursework, my research funding from the NIH was cut and my fellowship went with it. So I turned to high school teaching for financial reasons. After six months of “baptism by fire,” I fell in love with it! Teaching allowed me to share my enthusiasm for science with the creativity of teaching new and interesting ways. I still enjoy teaching today.

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

I’ve always been curious about how nature worked, but The Apollo Program really sparked my interest in science. I had a big map of the moon on my bedroom wall and placed a pin in it each time there was another landing. I knew all the astronauts' names and what each mission did. Later I got involved in NASA and was trained in the GAVRT program. I went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and visited the giant radio telescopes in the Mojave Desert. That was one of the highlights of my career! I taught astronomy and was an advisor for astronomy clubs at several high schools. I still find space fascinating.

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

    I was involved with ACS before becoming part of AACT. In several of my administrative positions, I was the chemical hygiene officer and took part in trainings through CIRMA to be certified. When NGSS was being drafted, I participated in a few feedback meetings with teachers who were in AACT. I’ve used ChemMatters for many years to add reading and relevancy to my courses. AACT gives teachers a wealth of resources that I have used including inquiry labs, videos, and demonstration ideas.

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

    I have my students keep both science journals and portfolios of their work. The science journal allows students to answer essential questions, jot down their lab data, ask questions, and complete “do nows”. I use color-coded stickies with written suggestions or thoughts, and students feel freer to show their private questions and thoughts through the journal rather than out loud in class. I find this especially helpful with my quiet students. Portfolios have two purposes: they allow students to select their best work (one lab, one homework, one quiz or test) and evaluate what they learned using a reflection sheet and they make a “plan for success” where they state two concrete goals and plan how to achieve them. At the end of the quarter, they also place in their portfolios an evaluation of these goals. As students can decorate or personalize their journals and portfolios I find they get very attached to them. I can learn a lot about my students through these assessments and student input has been helpful in planning curriculum changes.

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

    Stoichiometry! Anything to do with math is a challenge. The basic math skills of my students have seriously declined over the last ten years. I’ve tried to coordinate with common assignments with the math teachers but it’s hard to do because not all of my students take the same level of math. I try to make matching games or heterogeneous groupings but I really don’t have a good answer for this one!

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

    Journals and portfolios give you far better longitudinal assessment than anything else in my opinion. Understanding why students are underperforming is critical. Student choice is also important. If I give a project or presentation assignment I make sure student have a “menu” of choices to choose from. I do find most student gravitate to a level they feel most comfortable with.

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

    I read and attend webinars and meetings with professional groups. I also take advantage of anything that will broaden my personal experience. For example, in 2021 I attended a week-long professional development opportunity at Sikorsky Helicopters in Stratford, CT and learned how to make helicopters. Keep looking for new things to learn, and your students will benefit in ways you can’t predict!

    What are you most proud of in your work?

    As a curriculum coordinator for my former district, I had the opportunity to guide the transformation of Six to Six Magnet (K-8) schools in Bridgeport into STEM schools using a very large federal grant program. We completely revamped the curriculum, and we partnered with a number of non-profit science organizations around the southern part of our State. It was really fun and creative to work with such a talented faculty.

    What fuels your passion for science and teaching?

    Good question! I don’t know. I’ve just always been curious about how things worked. I love to go to museums, national parks, and new places.

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

    Ask good questions.

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

    Wonder—keep wondering and being amazed at what you find!