Figure 1. The author helping her school develop outdoor classrooms during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Change Reality,” my school’s motto, feels science-y in more ways than one.

Sure, it’s got the flying car, talk-to-aliens futuristic flair about it. But I think it also cuts to the heart of science: acknowledging that our world (including its schools) is full of imperfections, some small and some daunting, and that we can engage in forward-thinking experimentation to make it better.

For the last 10 years, de-tracking has been one of my central experiments. Together with my truly diverse class of students, we’ve learned a lot — and also had plenty of chances to activate our other school motto: “Fail Forward.”

Case in point: the “Gingerbrede” we made in our alchemy unit at the start of the year, while learning about unit conversions and significant digits. This was definitely more of a “Failed it” than a “Nailed it” experience! Even so, it’s probably still better than the cucumber-stuffed-with-liver concoction that is also on; plus, it uses obscure units like “a jigger of breadcrumbs” and “a jack of honey” that help me deliver a backhanded jab at inches, pounds, and anything else not metric. Still, “weird” is a much more apt description than “delicious,” and most of my students think that even calling it “weird” might be a bit generous.

But taste wasn’t my main goal. Rather, I wanted to get students working together, laughing together, and perhaps making fun of me a little, because that’s what we often need early in the school year.

A dynamic mix

My students come from a variety of backgrounds and are still learning how to desegregate after having gone to very segregated elementary schools. Also, unlike 80% of high school students in the US, they are not tracked into honors chemistry/regular chemistry/no chemistry, which means I have a potpourri of students. Professors’ kids sit side-by-side with kids who will be the first in their family to go to college; kids whose intellectual superpower is that they speak a different language at home than at school, learning alongside kids who have been to several science-themed summer camps.

As teachers, we know that we need to build on students’ life experiences as we take them into the abstract world of chemistry … but how do you connect with their life experiences when those experiences are so diverse?

One way is to build shared experiences for the students, and opportunities to play and laugh together. A good example is my lemonade molarity lab, and the healthy teenage banter that builds from arguing about which is better: the 2 M concoction or the 0.2 M one. Note: usually I’m in favor of questions with multiple right answers, but I have to side with the 0.2 M kids on this one. The 2 M version is basically a molten pink citric acid sugar sludge … one that I’m not sure is quite liquid enough to qualify as a “drink.” Still, controversy aside, there’s nothing like sour pink sugar sludge to bring together a group of diverse (and puckering) teenagers.  

But let’s not limit ourselves to disgusting tastes — because as it turns out, smells also build community. I take my students to both the Great Salt Lake and the city’s Water Reclamation facility during our “Down the Drain” unit. Both places are inspiring ecological wonders … that also have serious olfactory overtones.

In one activity, students make and calibrate their own hydrometers to test the saltiness of the Great Salt Lake. It’s less fancy than it sounds: the hydrometers are made out of straws and clay, but they are a perfect introduction to calibration, standard solutions, and instrument drift — which helps later in the year, when students learn how to use an ion chromatograph. I’ve found this to be a perfect lesson … but only if students actually complete the lab. Inevitably, someone gets stuck in a couple feet of decomposing brine shrimp poo muck, and a group of students must work together to extract the unfortunate one.

But all this craziness gives students something to talk about in the van, when small groups of us take our water samples to the University of Utah (UU). It’s quite possible that the van ride is where the students’ identities are actually being built, as they become part of a team that is going to college.

Key Beliefs and Instructional Practices for Successful De-tracked Chemistry Classes

  • teachers’ true belief in a developmental (as opposed to fixed) conception of ability and intelligence
  • a focus on an inquiry-based approach to chemistry using real-world contexts
  • a focus on teaching students study skills
  • a strong sense of community in the classroom

(Watanabe, et al., 2007)

It’s a shame I can’t cram all of my students into that van and into the ICP lab, which would probably be its own community-building experience. But maybe that impossibility is a mixed blessing, because students must instead apply to be lab ambassadors, which gives them the opportunity to take leadership roles and teach the rest of the class about their experience analyzing the water samples.

You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a live-action “Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer Game” in a gym, in which students pass through plasma as a stream of elements, lose their “electron shoes,” and get pushed by a magnet to different detectors. Seriously, it’s the kind of awkward, nerdy activity we chemistry teachers dream of, and in this case I neither designed nor delivered it — instead, it was just students figuring out how to engage/torture each other.

Dr. Diego Fernandez, director of UU’s Inductively Coupled Plasma lab, was so generous to invite my 8-10 students (and all of their associated dust and contaminants) into his super-clean trace element lab. He was such a welcoming first encounter for my students who had not previously visited the university’s campus. 

Diego’s limitation on group size also opens the door to some serious scheming around equity. Close to half of my students will be the first generation in their families to go to college. I build my groups around them, adding privileged kids who play an important role by bringing resources and enthusiasm that benefit all of us. I tend to obsess over the lab groupings, worrying over students who didn’t apply, tracking them down in the hallway and explaining their critical role in the project’s success — and sometimes enlisting help from a best friend. I work hard to make my group a representative sample of my classes, something beyond the “curated diversity” that is more typically found in an honors class with a light sprinkling of high-achieving, low-income kids.

Sweating the details

I give these lab groups the same obsessive attention I apply to my seating charts. I change seating charts eight times a year, and it’s another thing I spend hours on outside of school (apologies to my own two kids at home — I promise I will cook dinner sometime next summer!). I arrange and rearrange kids in an on-line seating chart app, always with two chief concerns in mind:

  • What does each individual student need? More opportunities to listen to other students? More opportunities to be heard? A safer space with people from a similar cultural background? Or a challenge to work with others who are different than themselves?
  • How can my chemistry classes stand in opposition to the hegemony that we know still exists in our society, in the chemistry world, and in our schools? How can my students and I together create a more just society? How can I help them address huge problems in our world in a way that helps them feel empowered, and not intimidated?

I simultaneously love, and am humbled by, the fact that the teaching profession lends itself to such big questions. Eleven years ago, I was nervous during my job interview with the Salt Lake Center for Science Education. The school’s name included the word “science” — great! —  but did that mean they were looking for someone wonkier than me? My job title at my previous school was “chemistry teacher,” but I may have been more accurately described as a sort of urban eco-adventure molecular scout leader.

Inspired by Utah’s mountains and deserts (but also its infamous air pollution), I’ve worked my entire curriculum around energy and the environment. We’ve visited nearby refineries and power plants, studied the costs and benefits of nuclear energy, and engineered electric car batteries. I even bought a bus, for which we made all our own biodiesel from used vegetable oil (I still moonlight as a school bus driver).

After a few years, I diversified my curriculum to include units on alchemy, forensic science, and water quality. Still, I was a little concerned: didn’t teaching at a “science” school mean that now my units should have titles more like “Electronic Structures and Periodic Properties”? I asked my future principal (a former chemistry teacher himself) if he was sure I was the teacher they were looking for, and whether he was looking for me to shepherd all these students toward chemistry Ph.D. programs? His reply surprised me: “Nah, I want them to become nurses and teachers. Those are the two best jobs.”

At the moment, this response reassured me and made me smile. Over time, though, I’ve come to see how deeply layered his answer really was. Teaching is not an easy job. I’m not quite willing to go toe-to-toe with nurses on the “whose job is tougher” front, especially after a pandemic year.

But we teachers, too, are essential workers. The teaching itself is plenty hard, but there’s also the behind-the-scenes work of planning, lab set-up, materials management, state mandates, and grading. All of which are peanuts compared to building relationships with students and inspiring them. What’s more, I believe we teachers actually have an even bigger imperative: to “Change Reality.” We have the responsibility to build a better world. I don’t think my principal was lowering the bar in any way when he said he wanted our students to become teachers; he was raising it.  

We are definitely changing reality through our de-tracking experiment, and each year I become more convinced that it is better for all students. But there’s still a lot of failing forward, too. It’s not easy to create equitable conversations in a sample group that lives in an inequitable society. I’ve been working hard to change my default practice of asking right/wrong questions in front of the whole class in a way that inevitably garners responses from a small slice of chemistry groupies.

Striving for deeper conversations

While it is potentially satisfying to me as a teacher to know that some students are learning, it is in no way a true group conversation. Time and time again, my students have shown me how much better it works for me to ask a deeper question and then say, “talk about it with your partner” or put them in groups with defined roles such as facilitator and recorder. It’s also important to have them report back not just about their own ideas, but also the ideas of the students next to them, who may have a very different view of the world. Sometimes the class-wide challenge is to see how many different methods they collectively used to solve the same problem. These are the kinds of things that truly create class community (not just withstanding bad smells and tart drinks).

I want a class community that can tackle real-world problems — because that’s what science is for, because project-based learning is one of the keys to good differentiation in a de-tracked classroom, and because including the students in a “make-the-world-a-better-place” mission makes my job a lot more fun.

Figure 2. The author photographed with her children, in the high Andean paramo ecosystem in Colombia. They collected data on biodiversity, which the author hopes to incorporate into future chemistry curriculum involving stable isotopes and bird migration.

Though the de-tracking experiment is far from complete (science is never finished!), I’ve learned a lot and am optimistic. Still, there are also plenty of realities that still need changing. The demographics of our teaching staff (mostly white, including myself) are nowhere close to reflecting the demographics of our student population.

This discrepancy makes me a little sheepish about a new experiment I’m embarking on this school year. After a four-month Fulbright trip to Colombia last spring (Figure 2), during which I researched environmental education and worked on my Spanish, I am now teaming up with my school’s Spanish teacher to start a new class: Ciencias y Espanol (Science and Spanish). Our dream is to have our native Spanish-speaking high school students develop science lessons and activities to deliver in Spanish to our partner elementary and middle schools.

My Spanish is still pretty shaky, and I wonder if teachers can actually start something that we want to be student-led — or is that just an oxymoron? Will my students find empowerment through the experience that I want for them? Will it encourage more of these awesome students to consider teaching as a career? I’m not sure; this new experiment is just beginning.

Regardless, I know we will learn a lot and at times fail forward, and I hope that this opportunity for my students to teach others is a way to share my love of this job: the best job in the world (sorry, nurses!).  

Photo credit:
(article cover) Dzmitry Dzemidovich/