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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Teach High School Science

A Passion for Science – The Zeal to Teach
Judy Jones

The other day, as I was reflecting on the nature of our high stakes testing in North Carolina and how it is affecting the teaching of science, I began to ruminate on what led me into science and finally into teaching science, Believe me, it was not a test that turned me on to science!

I am going to share with you why I am passionate about teaching science, particularly biology, and then challenge you to think about how and why you got interested in science. And I also challenge you to think about how your reasons for loving science affect your teaching of it. I also encourage you to share your thoughts with me. I would like to add your own reflections to this site (only if you give me permission to do so). Perhaps by sharing our stories, we will encourage each other and our students to keep the passion for science alive!

It all began for me in the 40s and 50s when I was a child growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Our home was a modest, post-WWII, two-bedroom house but our back yard abutted the San Francisco Game Reserve. This was a huge piece of acreage where deer and other creatures were protected from hunting and where rangers on horseback provided the security. My younger brother and I loved to slip through the barbed wire fence that divided our yard from the reserve and go exploring. We caught (and later released) lizards and snakes and trapped unlucky crickets and other insects to feed them. We spent hours hiking through the tall grass to find treasures –deer grazing in quiet glens of live oak, hawks and buzzards circling for prey and carrion, rodents, nesting birds, snakes and lizards rustling in the brush, of course, and the ever-fascinating decomposing carcasses.

We lived not too far from the Pacific coast and one of our favorite weekend treats was to head for the tide pools. Our dad amazed us with his trove of random knowledge. How did he learn about the colorful nudibranchs? Or the squishy anemones that we were amazed to learn are animals? Or the spiny sculpins blending into the rocky substrate of the pools? Or those clever little hermit crabs scurrying about in their “rented” shell homes that they upgrade for a larger one as they grow. These weekends piqued my curiosity about the diversity of living things. How did these creatures come about? How did they become so diverse? Ever so many questions raced through my mind.

Our mother was tolerant of the critters that we begged for. Hamsters, sliders, alligator snapping turtles, insects pupating all over the place, and even our more traditional cats. I remember how she fretted over the hamsters when they would hibernate – the very picture of death! She would gently take them and place them in an iron fry pan and put them in the oven where the pilot light would gently arouse them to life again! And I remember that she read somewhere that alligator snapping turtles prefer to eat while in the water, so she would carefully fill our bathtub with cool water and give the lucky snapper liver bits – in the tub(!) – which she vigorously scrubbed afterwards!

This childhood pleasure of watching and nurturing living things and those provoking questions are still alive within me. Why? I suppose because there were always people around to feed my wonder. Teachers and even college professors were among these sources of inspiration. I remember that my high school biology teacher gave us the job of collecting an array of organisms to stock the shelves of our newly built school. I learned two things from this – I don’t like killing creatures (my dad had to do most of the pinning) and I love learning about all the incredible diversity around us. I also remember my professor for a course called “Algae and Fungi.” Now, you might think that with a course title like that, you would not find yourself instilled with the passion to learn! But this professor was unique. He frequently took us on spontaneous field trips in the hills surrounding Stanford where he would pounce upon some fabulous specimen of bracket fungus and extol its saprophytic properties as if it was a rare gem (which in fact, it was to him). We scurried to keep up with this lanky gentleman as he searched for his prizes. I became fascinated by the life cycles of these organisms and even more committed to pursuing a career as a biology teacher.

Several years ago, when my mother was visiting us, I heard her cry from the kitchen one evening, “Oh, something is out there.” I ran in to find an exquisite orb weaver spider encasing a katydid in its silks- hanging right outside my kitchen window. I ran for my camera while my mom cried “make it stop.” Later I explained to her that spiders do need to eat. But her response was that she “liked the green thing better!” It made me reflect on our human proclivity to assign values to various organisms. The green katydid is preferable to the hairy carnivorous spider. The butterfly is a wonder, the cockroach a dirty pest. We will eat shrimp but not crickets (in the U.S.) in spite of their similar arthropod ancestry. We say “yuck” to the rat and are charmed by the chipmunk. One of my goals as a teacher is to help my students see the value and importance of all organisms in an ecosystem, from the bright yellow slime mold to the elegant gazelle.

Two years ago, driving to my high school in Chapel Hill, NC early one morning, I saw some deer about to emerge from the forest on my right. I slowed down to let them pass. I had to rub my eyes to make sure the vision I saw was real. An albino deer joined by its comrades slowly crossed the road, shrouded in the faint humid mist. What a vision! I had heard from my students that there were albino deer in our town but I never expected to actually see one. This sighting became part of my lesson for that day.

This winter I had another “nature experience” while visiting family in Colorado. My brother lives in an area where coyotes explore freely. I was charmed by their full fluffy fur coats as they moved silkily across the new snow. One night, I was awoken by high-pitched howls and yips that seemed to be right outside our window. I thought perhaps I was experiencing a “predator-prey” moment. But I looked out the window into the moonlit night and there were several coyotes playing with each other. Better than any nature video I have ever seen! But in discussions with my brother and other folks in the neighborhood, it became clear that they were worried about the danger these creatures posed to their domestic animals and to their children. The biologist in me reflected on how we disturb natural habitats with our buildings and then follow up by relocating or killing the animals. I kept thinking that the coyotes had the obvious “eminent domain.” These are dilemmas to challenge my students.

And so as I teach biology, even in this era of lists of content objectives and multiple common assessments and standardized tests, I try to remember that the reason that I love biology goes far beyond some of the things that I am required to do with my students. I try to bring my enthusiasm and sense of wonder into the classroom. I try to provoke their interest by taking them to the ponds behind our school and arranging activities where they can make their own discoveries--a female wolf spider with spiderlings all over her back, a black snake polishing off some fuzzy treat, a turtle basking on a rock, insect galls on oak leaves, a deer skull sprouting antlers, colorful fungi sprouting up after a rain (my old professor would be proud!),and a multitude of other natural treasures. I plan active and engaging lab experiences so they can make their own observations and build their critical thinking skills through their own analyses. And I tell stories – always with a connection to the curriculum! When they bound into class ready for another day of biology adventure, I know I have succeeded in making biology more than just a multiple choice test!

And now, you must be thinking of your own stories of how you arrived at this point–teaching science. I would love for you to share these with me. Our common mission? To instill passion for the natural world and a deep desire to study and understand it.


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