Former ACS President Share the Impact of his High School Chemistry Teacher

By AACT on January 14, 2021

Have you ever wondered if your students will remember the impact you make on them? A recent Industry Matters Q&A article interviewed Thomas H. Lane, former ACS President, member of the Advisory Board that helped launch AACT, and current retiree from the Dow Corning Company. He was asked about his "incredible teacher/mentor" from high school. Here's what he had to say: 

Q: While in high school, you met an “incredible teacher/mentor” named Kneeland Nesius--your chemistry teacher. Is that the model for getting more teens interested in the sciences? And if so, what can be done to make such interactions more intentional and less serendipitous? Or are there better ways to generate this interest?

A: I love teachers! They have one of the most important jobs on the planet, educating our children for our collective future. Imagine, if you will, that second only to the nourishment of our bodies is the nourishment of our minds! Just as important as maintaining a healthy body is developing and nourishing an active mind. Teachers are the creative chefs charged with this difficult task.

By finding new and creative ways to develop healthy habits and a taste for learning, we can nourish these young minds for a lifetime. Chemistry and the other science-rich subject areas are critical to a balanced intellectual palate. Our children cannot be expected to compete in our global society on just “burgers and fries.” We must find new ways to serve up the STEM disciplines in ways that encourage our children and our communities to experiment -- to try just one bite. Who knows? Some might go back for seconds! Teachers must be significant contributors to the solution for education in the U.S. Therefore, we need to listen to their views and perspectives. 

For more than three decades, I have been listening to teachers. The outcomes from these conversations have been extremely enlightening. Teachers are master educators who are passionate and committed to their profession. They are brilliant thinkers with the inside-track on what will really work in a classroom. These conversations have revealed that the solutions to our education woes are not about money. The answers revolve around five common needs – needs that were universally voiced regardless of country, culture, or other demographics. 

The five things that teachers consistently asked for are:

  • Networks – most teachers teach in isolation. Imagine, as a scientist, working in isolation without access to the knowledge and insights of colleagues!  
  • Content in context – although master educators, they are limited by their prior experience to place required content into a practical context. How can they teach students about the transforming power of chemistry when they don’t know what a chemist (engineer, physicist, mathematician, or inventor) actually does? 
  • Support – from parents, fellow teachers, administration, community, business and industry. They long for support to try new ideas, to experiment, and to learn. They need friends and mentors to guide them through real examples of science in everyday life.
  • Courage – to try new ideas, experiment, and learn. Some teachers feel they’re under-prepared to teach certain subjects. Others simply need guidance to help them navigate. Some need courage to give science the priority it needs and deserves.
  • Time – to teach, network, experiment, and learn. If content delivery is a process, then could we use our collective knowledge of process optimization to “create” time?

Building credible relationships with local schools and teachers is one step toward creating an environment ripe for change. The ACS’s Science Coaches program and the creation of American Association of Chemistry Teachers are two important tools to address some of the needs of our teachers.

A word about my chemistry teacher, Kneeland Nesius. He believed enough in me to allow me to believe in myself. He always took time to answer my naive questions. He helped me with science projects and personally took me to the regional science fairs because my parents could not. He saw beyond my socio-economic context – beyond the aptitude tests and grades – and he saw someone worth believing in. Wouldn’t it be grand if we all believed enough in someone to allow them to believe in themselves?

I once asked Mr. Nesius “Why”—Why did he take the time with me? What did he see in me? And – more important, what should I be looking for in others? His answer continues to teach me. He said he knew all I needed was the opportunity to be successful, so he did his best to provide experiences that might lead to those opportunities. You know, I wanted to make him proud in the 11th grade, and I still do…I invited Mr. Nesius, who is now a professor emeritus, to Washington, D.C. to participate in my installation as president-elect of the American Chemical Society. I am not sure which of us was more proud that night!  

As a former ACS President, Lane's interview covered everything from his interaction with students while traveling to the non-technical skills he considers to be critical for chemistry students to learn early. Read the full article in ACS Industry Matters.