Please don’t lick the specimens…

Like many high school science teachers*, I have a bachelors degree in science and then I went back to school to add my teaching certifications** after a few years of working. My own BS is in ecology and environmental science, though I took multiple courses in earth sciences before I added the earth and space science certification that allows me to teach both geology and oceanography in the classroom today. I draw on the diversity of experience (and coursework) that I had in my content area to teach, and often shake my head at what I didn’t learn in my teacher education program.

I didn’t learn that, like many parents, that I would find myself saying things that I wouldn’t have believed possible before working with students. We started our unit on minerals last week, and the phrase (uttered with increasing frustration each time) “Please don’t lick the specimens” has come out of my mouth more times than I can count. I’m used to it by now, in my fifth semester of teaching geology- the first time I saw a student pick up one of our much-handled minerals and put it in his mouth, I was horrified. Now, I usually just remind them about cold and flu season and wipe it down with an alcohol wipe. (While taste may be a completely valid tool for identification of some rocks and minerals in the field, it doesn’t really work for our classroom sets of minerals being handled and mishandled by 150 students each semester).

I didn’t learn that my worldview, and the worldview of the average fifteen-year-old boy would be completely at odds with one another. I had one of those rude-awakening phone calls on Friday after the school day was officially over. One of our assistant principals had a student in her office because he’d made a bomb threat. It turns out, he’d taken one of my model volcanoes and told someone it was a bomb. These volcanoes are a simple plaster cup-shaped mound filled with crayon shavings and a wick, that when lit, slowly melts the crayon and you get a slow, oozy volcanic event…an event so non-eruptive, so non-exciting to the average geology student, that I stopped using these models for class demonstrations, because the kids were perpetually disappointed with the results.

On the positive side, I also didn’t learn how excited you would be about student successes. I gave my oceanography students a pile of materials- test tubes, food coloring, salt, scales, thermometers, ice, hot water, etc and asked them to demonstrate to me the effects of salinity and temperature on the density of water. After struggling for a while- What do mean, there aren’t directions for this?? – I heard some of the most incredible dialog around the nature of science, inquiry, and how scientists set up experiments. I was so proud that I wanted to frame some of their explanations- and it wasn’t pride that they all eventually achieved the end result that I expected.

There is a lot more to being a teacher than simply knowing the content, though certainly that is critical. The art of teaching is something that I’m not sure can be learned except on the job- in the daily interactions with kids, with content, with our colleagues. Certainly, I feel that my own practice is getting better with time (now I begin the minerals unit by asking the kids not to put the specimens in their mouths!), though there is always room for improvement (hide the model volcanoes, give the students more room to develop their own inquiry into science). Luckily, it’s a pretty fascinating process for the most part.

* I have no statistical evidence of this, only anecdotal, but I suspect more secondary science teachers receive their BS before going into teacher education programs. Of my own 13-member science department, at least half of us have a content-area bachelors degree (and many a content-area masters as well) along with our teaching credentials.
** In many states, you are simply certified as a “science teacher” for secondary science, no matter what your undergraduate focus. In Wisconsin, each field has its own certificate and those certifications determine what we are able to teach at the high school level. For example, I have my biology, earth and space, and “broadfield” science licenses, and am 1 credit short of my environmental science license. I cannot, therefore, teach upper level physics and chemistry courses. I am also licensed to teach in Colorado, which simply grants one a “Science” certification- there I would technically be qualified to teach any science class.

Erin Parker

About Erin Parker

Erin Parker is still sometimes surprised to find herself in front of a classroom, where she teaches earth sciences to 150 boisterous students each semester in an urban public high school in Wisconsin. She also can’t imagine herself doing anything else, even on the tough days. Erin’s posts explore earth science through the lens of a public educator and advocate for a scientifically-literate world.
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