AACT Member Spotlight: Zach Jones

By AACT on June 3, 2021

Zach Jones

Every month AACT spotlights a passionate member who is dedicated to enhancing chemistry inside and outside the classroom. This month, we spotlight Zach Jones. He teaches chemistry, AP Chemistry, and physics at Legacy High School in Broomfield, CO.

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Stuttgart, Germany in Department of Defense schools. My first experience living in the US was attending Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado where I earned my B.S. in Chemistry. I earned an M.S. in Organic Chemistry from Utah State University and worked as a pharmaceutical researcher at Array Biopharma (now Pfizer) in Boulder, Colorado for 10 years. I switched to teaching and I have been working at Legacy High School in Broomfield, Colorado for the past 16 years.

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

My undergraduate degree is in chemistry from a small college in Colorado, Fort Lewis College. The professors there were so passionate about chemistry and they treated us as part of the family. They taught us the culture of chemistry and how beautiful the underlying ideas are and I became a teacher because I wanted to pass that feeling for learning on to others. They convinced me, a fairly average student, that I could pursue chemistry as a career. My time at Fort Lewis changed my life in ways that I could not have imagined before going there. By the time students reach high school, they often have defined for themselves what they think is possible. I hope to introduce them to a world that they never really knew about or could have pictured themselves a part of.

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

Many students struggle with VSEPR theory and polarity. The reason is that they don't have many experiences thinking spatially before coming to my class. The best way to combat this to find any way possible to have them actually build models of molecules instead of just answer worksheet questions. Students are often looking for a short-cut answer and may not give "envisioning" the molecule a chance. I have found that high school students often perceive ball and stick type models as "toys" and don't want to use them (potentially out of feeling like I am treating them like a middle school student). To get around this, I have found that having them give very short presentations of how they determined the molecular shape and polarity is more effective. They use meter sticks to build the model as a group in front of the class to show how the bond dipoles interact. It is fun and a bit silly as they try to convince each other that they have indeed made an accurate shape. The arguments in front of the class about what the bond dipoles are doing are often funny and an effective learning experience.

How do you monitor the progress of your students? How do you ensure under-performers excel?

I try to keep on top of when students are struggling by using whiteboards in class to see in real-time when they are having problems. Of course, sometimes students fall behind anyway for a variety of reasons. I am fortunate to work at a school that has built-in academic support time. I check assignment completion each week and give invitations to those that seem to be falling behind. Those that struggle but are high achievers will seek help on their own, but those that are less academically-focused often need me to specifically reach out to say, "Hey, I think you need some help."

What is your favorite AACT benefit?

I really enjoy the specific focus on chemistry in Chemistry Solutions. Broader science publications rarely have chemistry-specific content.

What are you most proud of in your work?

I teach students of all levels. Some are National Merit Scholars, but most are not, and many have severe deficiencies in one aspect of learning or another. Regardless of their capabilities, I am most proud when I see that passion for something that they have just discovered and are excited about. As teachers, we have all had that student that—either literally or figuratively—has crossed arms and look of disinterest at the beginning of the year and later lights up as they discover something amazing about science that you discovered long ago. We as teachers get the privilege of reliving that experience through them, and I get to feel that energy all over again as if it was the day that I had the same epiphany long ago. Why everyone doesn't teach... I just don't understand. They are missing something wonderful!

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

We often hear that, as a country, we don't have enough students interested in math and science. I find that not to be true. I wish we would look at our system of teacher General Science courses in college. We have set up a system where General Chemistry specifically is used as a class to select out students for very competitive programs, such as medical programs. When a class is designed for the purpose of selection and not education, it will lead to many that could do chemistry choosing not to. I believe that many average learners can learn the content in a General Chemistry class in college. The questions that will determine their success are how big the jump in difficulty was from high school to college (which is the domain of high school teachers) and how supported students are when they struggle in college (which should be the domain of college professors). Our current system often fails students in both regards.