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Figure 1. The author leading a kids program in Mexico, before she become a teacher.

When someone mentions a chemistry teacher, we usually picture our high school chemistry instructor or college professor. But the reality is that science inspiration often begins at a much younger age.

In my case, my passion for science began very early — in fact, when I was only a little kid. Collecting fossils, identifying wildflowers, and gazing at stars were at the top of my favorite things to do growing up. Luckily my parents also shared that love, and I have many amazing childhood memories of adventures with them and my two brothers. It sounds cliché, but my desire to be a teacher also started at a young age. I always found myself in a position where I was leading a group of peers in some type of activity. Whether it was organizing a game of kick-the-can, teaching at the local library summer reading program, or leading a 4-H club, I always enjoyed being the one facilitating the group. However, it wasn’t until college that I realized I could put the two passions together and be a science teacher!

In my case, I was inspired by my parents and their interests; but of course, teachers can also instill a similar curiosity in children. Most elementary teachers introduce science, and middle school teachers build on that. Consequently, elementary teachers are science teachers, and should view themselves and each other in this way. As the 2022 Colorado Teacher of the Year, I am excited to recognize the amazing work being done by all chemistry teachers, and also to celebrate the work of our elementary and middle school teachers in their roles as science, and therefore chemistry, teachers.

Finding my niche

Figure 2. The author on a field trip to a local stream with her middle school students.

In my 17th year of teaching middle school science, I have to say I have found my niche. I’m one of the unique ones; middle school students are my people. Yes, they are awkward, and dramatic, but that’s what makes them the best! One of my favorite things about teaching middle schoolers is that they are still young enough to be curious, but old enough to start forming their own opinions about what they are interested in learning. As a middle school science teacher, I am able to introduce them to this amazing world we call science.

Everything has to do with science! Interested in skateboarding? Let’s chat about the physics behind how you skate down a ramp. Love to bake? Food chemistry is fascinating! What about fishing and hunting? Let’s go visit the local fish hatchery to learn more!

Inspiring students in science

As a middle school science teacher, I have the amazing opportunity to instill a passion for science in my students that will not only motivate them to take other science courses in high school, but will also continue throughout their lives. When students are introduced to strong and engaging science in the developmental years of elementary and middle school, they are able to build a passion and connection to science. Ask a student in a freshman science elective class why they signed up for that class, and chances are many would credit a teacher from their earlier years.

A few weeks after being awarded Colorado’s 2022 Teacher of the Year, I received a congratulatory email from a student whom I had taught in 6th grade, and who is now a high school senior. In the email she shared that when her high school chemistry teacher asked her class about the different subatomic particles, many students shouted out that they remembered learning about it in 6th grade class! She added that my class was one of the significant moments in her life, had shaped who she is today, and that she is going to study science after high school. I am always so honored to receive notes like this, as we teachers never know how contagious our passion for learning can be.

Science teachers at all grade levels

I want to take this opportunity to say kudos to all those elementary school teachers who teach all the subjects. I honestly don’t know how you do it all! I hope that, in the middle of teaching all those other subjects, you don’t overlook the unexpected opportunities to teach a little science as well — like when a student asks a question about why something in nature is happening, reads a book about the seasons changing, observes how a seed germinates, or even compares solids, liquids, and gases. In helping them understand the answers to any such questions, you are a science teacher! Thank you for nurturing that interest in science at such a young age.

When you have activities, books, discussions, etc. that use science, be sure to point that out to your students. For instance, when you help kids explore the sense of smell in first grade, make giant bubbles in second grade, create slime in third grade, make homemade butter in fourth grade, or make baking soda and vinegar volcanoes in fifth grade, don’t forget to point out that each of these activities is science! Oh, and guess what? They’re also chemistry, too!

Last summer, I had the great pleasure of working with the podcast “Science Friday.” I was partnered with the amazing food chemist, Dr. Selina Wang at UC Davis. The two of us created a resource to be used specifically in the elementary science classroom. In the lesson, students observe what happens when apple slices are rubbed with lemon juice. Students use that knowledge to understand the basics of antioxidants and how scientists are currently working to find new and creative ways to apply chemistry. (For example, adding olive pomace, which is filled with antioxidants, to road asphalt to extend the life of roads!) In doing simple activities like this, not only are students learning about science, but more specifically, they are learning about chemistry. We presented our resource to over 100 teachers during the Science Friday Educator Phenomena Forum in the summer of 2021. The feedback we received was very positive, and teachers were excited to use it in their classrooms.

Additional go-to resources that I love to use in my classroom are the amazing materials found in the AACT Classroom Resource Library. So many times when I am doing lesson planning, I spend hours searching the Internet for the perfect visual or strategy to teach a specific unit — so I was thrilled when I realized the extent of the helpful resources AACT offers. One I use each year is the simulation, States of Matter and Phase Changes. I love how students are able to visualize how the particles speed up or slow down during a phase change. There are many illustrations out there that show only a “snapshot” of how the particles look during each state of matter, but this model actually demonstrates how the movement changes from one state to another. I use these models when I have my students make ice cream, and have them label each phase change during investigation. I follow this lesson up with the Atoms in Motion lesson, and students leave class understanding the differences in particle motion … and, of course, happy about their ice cream treat!

Recognizing teachers

With so many outstanding science teachers at the elementary and middle school level, it is important to recognize their hard work. Each year, AACT awards one outstanding elementary, middle, and high school teacher in chemistry education. Last year, Pradip Misra and Amiee Modic won the 2021 Chemistry Teacher of the Year Award in middle school and high school, respectively. There was no elementary school teacher awarded this honor as none applied; however, we know there are incredible teachers out there!

For this upcoming year, I challenge my fellow AACT members who are elementary educators to apply! If you teach an older grade, reach out to the amazing elementary educators out there and encourage them to apply for the award. In addition, middle school science educators, don’t forget you also can apply. This award is not just for those teachers who teach only chemistry, but rather, for all science educators who include chemistry in their basic science courses. I love that high school chemistry teachers are celebrated, but I don’t want our teachers who work with our younger students to be overlooked. Hurry, the application closes on May 13th.

Remember, elementary and middle school teachers, you are science teachers, too! You can develop a student’s interest in all kinds of science from the very start of their formal education. Celebrate the fact that your enthusiasm and efforts will develop a curiosity in children in the phenomena around them. You play an important role in later course choices, lifelong interests, and maybe even careers. I truly believe that a passion for science can be instilled at a young age.

Photo credit:
(article cover) Sofic/Bigstock.com