November 2015 | In My Element
Teaching Chemistry: A Calling
By Patrick L. Daubenmire
I was a junior in high school when I fell in love with chemistry. Sitting in Father Kiffmeyer’s fourth period class, I laid eyes on the periodic table for the first time and caught his enthusiasm and passion for the subject. By the end of high school, I had achieved the label of chemistry geek, a badge I proudly wore and continued to wear into college. In fact, on one of my first college dates I wore a periodic table T-shirt. It boded well: that remarkable woman stayed with me, and we have been married for 18 years.
A gnawing desire to teach chemistry grew in me and could not be ignored. After applying to and being accepted to medical school, I had a change of heart. I put out applications to teach high school chemistry. I landed a gig outside of Baltimore in a private all-boys’ school. There, I worked to develop in others the same passion and understanding of chemistry I myself had acquired. And I found a few rewards for this—somewhere out there is a chemical engineer, a food chemist, and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry who shared that their path to those careers started with my class.
Early challenges…and a pivotal workshop
As a newbie to teaching, though, I stumbled in many of the ways new teachers do. I lectured too much and didn’t listen or pay attention as closely as I should to the needs of my students. I needed to improve and find better opportunities to help students learn. I consulted with colleagues and attended workshops.
One of those workshops was offered at The Catholic University of America under the direction of Diane Bunce. There, I discovered the world of chemistry education research and practice. My passion had room to grow, and I earned a Ph.D. in chemical education. I taught high school while I pursued my degree, and it had benefits—my research influenced my teaching and my teaching influenced my research.
Exploring in that world, I found an essential strategy that could lessen or even eliminate barriers to learning and teaching chemistry: start with what students know, and shape instruction from there. Also in that world, I found opportunities to support ideas and practices that not only affect students in my own classroom, but also in other classrooms. A few of those ideas:
- how subtleties in a teacher’s implementation of Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) can affect students’ conceptual understanding of chemistry principles;
- how using the Science Writing Heuristic promotes students’ use of effective learning strategies even when they are outside of the classroom; and
- how an ecological perspective of learning chemistry can blur traditional lines of a classroom and influence the pro-environmental behaviors of students and their families.
Throughout my experiences so far, I have come to view the world in a particular way: physics may form the letters, words, and grammar of the universe…but chemistry is its poetry. (Biology is merely allegorical chemistry.) 6.022x1023 is not just a number, but a connector between two worlds: one we can see, touch, measure, and another that is beyond the scope of the naked eye, where atoms dance and create change. That is what I fell in love with—learning and teaching the universe’s poetry.
Ever since that moment in 11th grade, my passion for chemistry has remained and grown stronger. I hear and see critical messages in the stanzas of chemistry. I am compelled to share those messages. I am called to do so, and for me, if I don’t answer that call, I will not be happy. I would be doing something other than what I am supposed to. The universe’s poetry needs to be read and understood.