May 2021 | In My Element
Paying it Forward as a Chemistry Teacher
By Felicia Williams Russell
My sister and I grew up in a very rural and socioeconomically depressed area of Eastern North Carolina. I have memories of us running barefoot and playing in the cotton and corn fields next to our home.
Without really knowing it, I began thinking as a chemist early on in my childhood. Clay soil was our friend; we learned how to “mix” it with everything, from our mom’s fabric softener near the washing machine to the leftover lima beans on our dinner plate. My favorite mixture was the red clay and sand mixture, because of the beautiful rust color and slight texture that resulted.
It also helped that my dad worked on the second shift for a well-known pharmaceutical company, only two counties over, and we often heard him talk about making the medicine “go into solution.” Maybe that is why I liked to combine my powdered drink mix with sugar and water in specific ratios, making sure I had the perfect balance of sweetness in my thirst quencher.
These experiences most likely influenced my interests, and I somewhat unknowingly began to develop a love of chemistry. In middle and high school, I favored science and math classes over everything else. I remember feeling so proud of myself in 8th grade, when I found out I had won honorable mention at a regional science fair. That success gave me the confidence to pursue more science courses in high school, such as Chemistry and Advanced Biology.
It wasn’t surprising to my family that I went on to college to study science. I completed requirements for a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology, and now I am working on a Master of Arts in Teaching degree in Chemistry Education, as a National Science Foundation Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program recipient at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. After my graduation in December 2021, I plan to pursue a career as a high school chemistry teacher in a high-needs school, and encourage other young people to study science. Looking back, my curiosity and love for investigating mixtures is something I embraced, and it all started in my childhood.
A New Perspective
As I embark on a teaching career, and shift my focus to my future students, I think that my experience can be applied to young minds today, especially in lower socioeconomic groups in the United States.
As teachers, we have simple methods at our fingertips that can allow our students, no matter how young, to develop a love of chemistry. We can discuss chemistry topics with such enthusiasm that students want to try something for themselves. We can make chemistry topics familiar by always relating the objective to something that is familiar to the students. If budgets are tight, we can safely use many household products to help students connect to chemistry. While we all know that combining vinegar and baking soda can be used as the basis for many teaching topics, there are also many other things in your kitchen or laundry room that can serve a similar purpose. I plan to keep these types of insights in mind as I enter the classroom.
Items that may be “expired” according to the label are perfect to use for simple student investigation, such as “mixing” to experience basic chemistry. I recently cleaned out my cupboards and found some old gravy mixes that I had not used. Instead of throwing them out, I quickly thought aloud, “Oh, I can use this to help students understand homogenous solutions.” That inspired my thinking, and I continued to find more useable items in my kitchen. To make heterogeneous solutions, for example, I realized I could mix these expired corn chips with peanuts, or another food that doesn’t invoke allergic reactions. Any items that are relatable for students, and that can be safely touched and disposed of, can help students make a stronger connection to the content they are learning in textbooks or on worksheets. For ideas and information about teaching chemistry with the items found in your kitchen, visit the Kitchen Chemistry Collection, available from AACT. You will find great classroom lessons, labs, activities, and much more — all identified by K–12 grade level, and ready to use in your classroom.
Looking forward, I am extremely excited to begin my career as a chemistry teacher. I look forward to helping other young people build excitement for the subject and science in general. I plan to encourage them to apply for scholarships in the STEM fields and help them to see the practical value of science in their lives. After all, they may be like me as I was growing up: not realizing how much chemistry is all around them. I’m so excited to pay it forward, and be the teacher who helps develop their love for the subject.
(article cover) Aquasnap/BigStockPhoto.com