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Brian Kennedy receives the Conant Award at the ACS National Meeting in 2018. Photo: Peter Cutts Photography

One hot July day, while I was in my classroom doing some cleaning and organizing, I received an exciting phone call from ACS President Allison Campbell.

Since it was summer, I had brought with me my daughters, Caitlyn (11) and Ashley (9), who like to visit my lab to conduct little experiments and make slime. On that day, they had on their lab coats and goggles when the phone rang, letting me know that I was selected for the ACS James Bryant Conant Award in High School Chemistry Teaching. To me, it was only fitting to be in the lab with my girls when such exciting news was shared.

From the time I worked as a custodian in high school to obtaining my Ph.D. in Chemistry, I had many ups and downs along the way, accompanied by a series of opportunities for advancement and growth. Although it is up to each of us to determine how to get where we are in life, we must also be able to capitalize on opportunities, big and small, along the way. In this article, I want to share how my background and life opportunities have helped me become a successful high school chemistry educator and research director.

From the commode?

In my younger days, I worked as a custodian for a small office building in my home town of Falls Church, Virginia. Fast-forward many years. While in the classroom, my thoughts often go back to my days in high school and college, when I worked a variety of jobs, ranging from newspaper delivery boy, custodian, dish washer, and cook, to electrician’s assistant. These experiences have often inspired me to create ever-increasing opportunities for my students over the past 20 years.

After 10 years of college, I received my Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from the University of Wyoming. My graduate research there included the development of organic-coated nanosilver surfaces and the engineering of miniature devices for coupling Raman spectroscopy as a viable analytical tool to be used in conjunction with chromatography applications.1 Thereafter, I was awarded a National Research Council Fellowship to conduct research at the Army Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, MD. There, I used spectroscopic methods to research novel surface coatings for enhanced metal protection.2

Although it seemed like I was on track to pursue a career as a research scientist, I was curious about finding ways to utilize my scientific background in other ways. For the most part, I felt less and less compelled to spend my time alone in a research lab. Reflecting on my earlier school days, I had once considered being a teacher. Throughout undergraduate and graduate school, this always seemed to be a potential career path. For example, while in graduate school, I went on a hike in the Wyoming mountains, which is where I first learned about Teach For America and its programs for placing teachers in high-need locations, such as inner city and rural areas. It seemed like a perfect fit for my interest in teaching and doing something socially beneficial, so I applied and was accepted in early 1999.

Life as a teacher over the past 20 years

After being accepted in Teach For America and a whirlwind introduction to teaching, I was placed as a high school science teacher in Henderson, North Carolina at Southern Vance High School, where I taught various science courses from 1999 to 2002. While there, I also started an outdoor club and coached the cross country and wrestling teams. There were many challenges and rewards as a new teacher in rural America, but ultimately my passion for the classroom encouraged me to continue as a high school teacher. My next teaching job brought me back to my Virginia roots in the Fairfax County Public School system at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST).

At TJHSST, I was hired as the laboratory director for the Chemical Analysis and Nanochemistry Research Laboratory.3 Over the past 17 years at TJHSST, I have taught all levels of chemistry, with a primary role as the Research Lab Director. A lab director’s primary task includes maintaining a research lab for students in the school’s senior research program, explained below. Equipment within this lab include FTIR, UV/Vis, fluorescence, GC/MS, Raman, HPLC, Vernier Probeware, and microscale organic laboratory glassware. This equipment is mostly used by students who are completing their senior research projects within the research lab.

Over the years, I have also assisted with or sponsored a variety of activities, including a Nanotechnology Club, STEM-based groups, competitions, as well as assistant cross country coach. Hundreds of students have excelled in the school system’s Science Fair, the Regeneron Science Talent Search, and the Siemens Competitions, with many semi-finalists and finalists each year. Over the past few years I have been serving as the school’s Chemical Safety Liaison as outlined in the county’s Chemical Hygiene Plan.4

Overall, life as a teacher at TJHSST has been extremely busy, yet incredibly rewarding! Most people perceive this to be an easy teaching assignment in contrast with regular high schools, where discipline, apathy, and other problems may be more common. While that is somewhat accurate, teaching advanced high school students has many of its own challenges, including managing student stress levels. As a school, we often struggle to create a healthy balance between rigorous yet reasonable academic loads. One of my greatest joys as a research lab teacher is when students become more independent on their research projects. I can look out across the lab to see students working together and helping each other with whatever new challenge they may face.

Brief history of TJHSST

TJHSST is a Virginia Governor’s School for mathematics, science, and technology (STEM) established in 1985.6 This institution offers a dynamic, specialized learning environment for selected students from six Northern Virginia school districts. To be considered for TJHSST, a student must have high ability, aptitude, an interest in STEM, and also must be seeking a comprehensive, challenging STEM curriculum. Each year, a new freshman class of approximately 400–500 students is enrolled through a competitive admissions process, with projected total enrollment around 1,800-1,900 students each year.

Students complete a four-year science sequence from 9th – 12th grade that (at a minimum) includes biology, chemistry, physics, and geosystems, along with nearly 40 unique elective offerings, much like a regular high school. In chemistry, students must complete Honors Chemistry I in 10 th grade before the optional Advanced Placement (AP) Chemistry. Honors Chemistry I is based on the Virginia Standards of Learning, but at an advanced level. After Chemistry I, the next elective chemistry course in the sequence is AP Chemistry, which enrolls 220 students each year.

The Senior Science and Technology Research Laboratories offers a culminating learning experience for all TJHSST students, in a wide variety of areas of study.5 Of the 450+ seniors, about 40-50 students per year complete off-campus research through our mentorship program. Applying research and technology skills acquired during the first three years at TJHSST through core courses and special electives, students select a field of interest and conduct research relating to science, engineering, or technology. TJHSST recently completed a major renovation of the entire school, which included the construction of new research labs for the senior research program.6

Table 1. Science and Technology Research Laboratory Research Lab Opportunities

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Automation and Robotics
  • Biotechnology and Life Sciences
  • Chemical Analysis and Nanochemistry
  • Computer Systems
  • Energy Systems
  • Engineering Design
  • Microelectronics
  • Mobile and Web Application Development
  • Neuroscience
  • Oceanography and Geophysical Systems
  • Prototyping and Engineering Materials
  • Quantum Physics and Optics

Chemical analysis and nanochemistry research

Beyond the AP level, students can elect to take Introduction to Organic Chemistry with Instrumental Methods of Analysis, and/or Chemical Analysis Research or Mentorship, described in more detail previously.

Project design within the Chemistry Research lab is based upon guidelines for the International Science and Engineering Fair7 but must also be within the scope of the FCPS Chemical Hygiene Plan and ACS Guidelines.8 These expectations occasionally limit student project interests, since chemicals such as carcinogens, and devices such as drones, are prohibited. Many students begin project development based upon Journal of Chemical Education articles, for which the school pays to have institutional access. Projects relate to many broad or specific areas of chemistry, such as environmental remediation or analysis, nanotechnology, fuel cells, organic or inorganic synthesis, and integrating available instrumental analysis for a variety of student interests. Table 2 lists some of the many projects developed over the years from the J. Chem. Ed., although this is not the only source for projects.

The J. Chem. Ed. is often a great starting point for project design, since there are many laboratory experiment-based articles within the background knowledge level for high school students. In addition to the primary article, there are also often a variety of supporting materials that provide students with necessary details to help them with their designs. Once they have a good research area or starting point, students supplement their knowledge through additional sources such as Analytical Chemistry, ACS Nano, or Environmental Science and Technology, as well as other sources available through the school’s library.

Table 2. Recent Research Project Areas based on articles from the Journal of Chemical Education are highlighted below. The references often refer to the initial articles used to develop the topic into a research project.

  • Fabrication of Superhydrophobic Surfaces Patterned by Breath Figure-Formed Structures9
  • Development of Raman and SERS Techniques for Pigment Sample Analysis10
  • Cadmium-free Quantum Dot Synthesis for Application in Solar Cells11
  • Analysis of Caffeine in Beverages Using Aspirin as a Fluorescent Chemosensor12
  • Air Quality Analysis using GC-MS and Solid-Phase Microextraction13
  • Synthesis and Fluorescence Analysis of 4-methylumbelliferone14
  • Optimizing Cyclodextrin-Based Metal Organic Frameworks for Carbon Dioxide Adsorption Efficacy15,16
  • Determining Trace Metal Concentrations using Anodic Stripping Voltammetry17
  • Natural Dye Sensitized Nanocrystalline Thin Film Solar Cells18
  • Green Silver Nanoparticle Synthesis and Catalytic Property Evaluation19,20,21
  • Quantitatively Measuring Heavy Metal Ion Concentration using Mobile Camera Image Analysis22,23
  • Adsorption of Common Water Pollutants by Magnetite-Activated Carbon Nanocomposites24,25,26
  • Determination of Formation Constant and Catalytic Ability of PAMAM-encapsulated Cu nanoparticles27
  • Development and Determination of a Limit of Detection of An AuNP-Based Colorimetric Assay to Detect Neurotransmitters28
  • Determining the Optimal Antibacterial Agent from Chitosan-based Schiff Base Complexes29
  • Forensic Analysis of Architectural Paint through Reflectance Spectroscopy and Color Analysis30
  • The Characterization of Antibacterial Properties of Various Essential Oils31
  • Characterizing Biochar-supported Iron-oxide NPs Synthesized Through a Hydrolysis Method32,33
  • Fluorometric Determination of Aluminum under Various Environments34
  • Synthesis of Carbon Quantum Dots to Facilitate Electron Transfer in Microbial Fuel Cells35
  • Analysis of Phosphorus and Bromine-Containing Fire-Retardant Compounds Using GC-MS36
  • Optimization of Synthesis of Biodegradable Polymers37

Future and ongoing goals

Over the next few years, my instructional goals will of course include helping students develop novel and exciting research projects. Plans include developing a new curriculum for the Organic Chemistry and Instrumental Methods of Analysis course. Goals include making it nearly entirely problem-based learning and lab-based while integrating microscale methods38 with Vernier probeware.39 The ultimate outcomes are to: 1. Accelerate lab skills through safe and environmentally conscious experimentation that would advance future research projects within any of our research labs, and 2. To better prepare students for college academic experiences. Having also received my masters in Education Leadership degree in 2013, if I were ever to leave the lab, I would like to find a position that enables me to use my scientific background to guide future teachers to have successful careers in science education.