March 2018 | Editorial
The Importance of Outreach
By Sherri Rukes
Chemistry gets a bad rap at times. Some people consider the subject very difficult to understand, and may even fear it.
But I, on the other hand, have long known I wanted to be a chemistry teacher, driven by my passion to promote chemistry to all. I know that everyone will not love chemistry like I do, but I do believe that everyone can at least learn to appreciate it. I especially love seeing the excitement and wonder in the eyes of younger students. That is why I mentor in many communities, working with both teachers and kids of all ages to help them learn about the beauty, immediacy, and relevancy of chemistry in all of our lives.
My journey started over 15 years ago, when I decided to pursue educating others about chemistry by presenting at conferences.
I had only been teaching for a couple of years, so I was unsure if I had anything salient to share. The fundamentals of chemistry had not changed since I started teaching; after all, this wasn’t the early 1900s, when the nucleus was discovered! I felt like I had nothing new to tell people, and that all the demos and labs that I liked to do were well-known already!
Fortunately, I decided to give it a try anyway. I remember my first conference very well: the NSTA regional conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was nervous, and decided to just be myself and talk about some of the real-world connections I teach my kids in the classroom. After the presentation, several people approached me to share that they had never considered doing the activity in the way I had described. They expressed that my excitement and energy for the subject made them want to be a student in my class.
I was invigorated by this feedback, and felt encouraged to continue pursuing outreach. A great new opportunity to do so came along when I was asked by a colleague to present to middle school students about chemistry as part of a program called GEMS (Girls Empowered by Math and Science) in the Chicagoland area. Of course, I said yes!
And so it was that one Saturday, I did six presentations to about 150 girls to show them a little polymer chemistry. I planned my presentation just as I would for my own high school classroom. I prepared activities and demonstrations, each of which had real-world connections.
As I was presenting, I noticed more and more adults appearing in the back of the room. Parents, community members, and other teachers came into the room and were engaged by the real-world connections I was making with the content. Afterward, my audience members told me that I had explained concepts in a way that was easy for everyone to understand.
I believe that this particular skill is the key to successful outreach. For me, chemistry is not about using the “big” words — but rather, making the concepts understandable. Having teachers, parents, and students alike grasping the concepts and appreciating the science was an indication of success!
Developing confidence and battling fear
Several years ago, I started instructing teachers in weeklong workshops through ASM International (a materials science association). These workshops made me realize that anyone can teach chemistry! At first, the workshops were predominantly intended for high school teachers. However, I realized that by extending my outreach to middle and elementary school teachers, I was able to help instill excitement about chemistry in students who were too young to have developed a preconceived fear about its difficulty.
The first time I did a workshop for elementary teachers, we did an activity from my first-year chemistry curriculum about classifying materials. I focused on encouraging attendees to share their feedback throughout the session. I realized that they had a lot of knowledge, but that their explanations and terminology differed from mine. These differences made them assume that they were uninformed, and hurt their confidence. I knew that using alternate terminology did not matter; many industries use different terms to explain the same concept. So, during our discussion, I made certain to explain different word choices for various concepts and demonstrate how they all had similar meanings. This allowed these teachers to be more confident in their understanding of the various topics.
I also found it valuable to stop and ask the participants, how might you use this information in your own class? Giving them the opportunity to be reflective and make connections with the material was essential to their engagement. Before my workshop, I researched the related state standards and chose to use activities that would give background information for the teachers themselves, as well as ideas for what to do in the classroom.
By gaining background knowledge and having the opportunity to explore and ask questions, the teachers developed crucial confidence in the material — allowing us to have an ongoing dialogue, free of judgement that benefited everyone. Our discussion included combating issues that teachers may face with obtaining materials, brainstorming the best way to set up their classroom, as well as different methods to use the material. As the presenter, I learned so much from this experience! Even though we came from different teaching backgrounds, we were each working toward a common goal. Elementary teachers have so much knowledge to offer high school teachers, and vice versa.
Start a conversation
My advice to anyone who wants to do outreach involving chemistry: Just be yourself, and start a conversation. My goal all along has been to share my passion for the subject with others. During each of my experiences, I was able to engage more people in chemistry, appreciate it, learn something new, and begin a dialogue with others.
Now doing outreach is even easier, thanks to AACT. This organization has opened the door for not only high school teachers, but also K-8 teachers, to obtain resources, master more of the content, ask for advice when needed, and create chemistry friendships with high school and postsecondary teachers. What a wonderful opportunity for K-8 teachers to shine!
I encourage you to find similar opportunities to tell others about how and why you teach, and what you do in your own classroom. You never know from where your inspiration will come, so make sure to listen to others. Every time I attend a conference, whether or not I present, I get ideas from others. I am often able to learn a different approach, or a way to put a different spin on an old favorite. Sometimes I forget about all those great oldies, because I keep trying different things in my classroom!
Learn from your AACT colleagues
In this issue of Chemistry Solutions, several teachers have taken a step in sharing their own passion for chemistry. Jennifer Dower, a third-grade teacher, shares about her successful experience as part of the AACT Science Coaches Program. If you’re a high school teacher and you’re interested in adding elements of inquiry to your lab work, or reformatting the organization of your chemical reactions unit, you can find great insight in this issue. You can find some exciting forensic-themed labs in this month’s Resource Feature article. Matt Perekupka provides insight about how to integrate more 21st century skills into your teaching methods. And last but not least, we hear a very interesting story about a teacher’s long, circuitous route to teaching chemistry.
I had the honor of serving as the AACT High School Ambassador two years ago, and am currently the President-elect of AACT. This organization is near and dear to my heart. It has given me the opportunity to be a part of a chemistry family, which is exactly how I approach my teaching and my outreach. Being on the Governing Board, I see first-hand all the hard work, time, and effort that people contribute to make this organization great. Volunteers across the country and the staff at AACT are working hard on your behalf to bring you an organization that educates and supports all of us.
Please log in and take advantage of your great member benefits. Interact with the discussion board: start a conversation about chemistry or respond to a conversation in the hopes of helping others. Outside of our virtual community, go for coffee with a K-8 teacher from your district and have a meaningful conversation. Consider hosting a webinar or writing an article to share your knowledge with others. Start talking, sharing, and connecting. Everyone has something to offer!
Start small, but don’t be afraid to reach for the stars. And remember, if you are presenting somewhere or you find yourself in the Chicagoland area, I would love to meet you, and share some thoughts about chemistry with you.
President-Elect, AACT Governing Board