Change is hard, but change is very, very good. Teaching in an environment like Culver has caused me to think more deeply and become more critical of the decisions that I make for the classes that I teach, enhanced my continuous drive to learn, and developed a greater appreciation for developing meaningful student relationships outside of the classroom environment.
I’ve always had an innate desire to learn more and more. For the past four summers, I have been involved with the Research Experience for Teachers program at the University of Notre Dame. Working with Dr. Grace Xing has allowed me to experience research first-hand, something I had never undertaken in my undergraduate career at Purdue. I love the challenge of research, and the mystery. This research experience has led to the creation of an entire unit of study on light emitting diodes for Physics, and has also been adapted to transistors for use in the Engineering II course that I began to teach this fall. My current research has focused on graphene, and while the applications of this research to the classroom are not as grand as in past studies on more common devices, the research has allowed me to collaborate with a group of researchers and other teachers and generate content ideas for future lessons.
Beyond the content creation, my RET experience has allowed me to create connections between higher education and Culver. Grace and her graduate students have visited campus and taught students about the new frontier of nanotechnology research and the impact this research may have upon our lives. Grace was able to bring an atomic force microscope, allowing students to see how we characterize tiny, tiny things in the nanofabrication lab. It was a great opportunity to expose students to careers in science and allow a venue for them to ask questions. My experience at Notre Dame also led to my participation in the summer of 2009 in a two week program on campus at Purdue University, focused on creating content centered around nanotechnology. The experience at Purdue led to the generation of content that was posted on Curriki, an open-source website dedicated to providing quality lesson plans to teachers around the world as part of their “Summer of Content 2010” grant program.
Learning about the concept of the POGIL has also been transformational. A POGIL is a student centric activity; students assign roles within a small group and work through a varied set of problems or mini lab experiments, which are designed to emphasize fundamental scientific ideas or principles. Critical thinking is emphasized in the design of these activities, and students are required to first seek help from their group members before seeking outside guidance from me. Designing activities for a student centered learning environment has empowered the students in my classes, as well as serving as a listening post for me as I think about what concepts and big ideas really matter in the courses I teach. To date I have written POGIL activities for conceptual physics, chemistry and engineering.
Before Culver, my leadership roles at the schools that I had taught within had been minimal. I’ve now been able to serve on the committee for collegiality, become a part of Company A serving as a barracks inspector, been the level leader for upper level physics and engineering, as well as serving as the head of the Technology Support Committee.
One of the things I enjoy the most about boarding school life is the ability to get to know my students on a more personal level. Even if I never have them in class, the boys of Company A are my students. I enjoy being a surrogate father on Tuesday nights, seeing them on campus and having my mentees over for a cookout and chatting about life in general.
A typical night on BI duty (though in all honesty no night is “typical”) involves me discussing expectations with the UDO for the evening, and then making a round of the barracks. I like to do this before CQ starts, as it gives me a baseline to compare where students are, whom is already hard at work, and identifies possible issues that I may need to deal with as the night progresses. During CQ, I use gentle redirection to get students back on track. I guess that I still feel a strong connection to my “kid” side, and I try to think of life in the barracks through their eyes rather than my own when I consider how to get a student off of their computer and focusing on their upcoming quiz in Physics. Many nights, the counselor’s office turns into a great big study session; students pepper me (as well as one another) with questions about math and science. Often, boys from CA, CB, CC and other barracks are working through shared problems in the office. I like keeping the learning experiences social; it adds a layer of humanity to the process of study. Group learning is powerful and reinforcing.
BI duty was an aspect of my work that I didn’t anticipate enjoying as much as I do now. I had a dry view of the barracks when I first arrived at Culver. Now I look forward to seeing students grow, mature and continue in their learning path; it’s nice to be able to play a positive role in this process.
Another favorite campus activity is one that I first began when I was teaching in Oak Park, Illinois. Chem-o-ween has become a fixture on campus during Halloween, and I enjoy planning the series of chemical reactions and related demonstrations for the campus and community attendees. Making science accessible to a broad community audience means that more young kids will get interested in science at a younger age, and hopefully that will translate into more local kids choosing scientific career paths when they get older.
Being a level leader has made me more reflective, and more of a planner than I had been before. I never feel like an “island” in the science department. The level of collegial support in science has been fundamental in the cooperative development of much of the curriculum we use in physics, chemistry and engineering. As the level leader for physics, I worked with Mark, Jason, Igor and Xenia on the development of the modern physics and thermodynamics portion of the course when I first began teaching at Culver; this content soon became the second term portion of the course.
Most recently, I’ve been working with Chris and Phil on the engineering curriculum. Together, we’ve designed units of study that are challenging, and are clearly illustrating the campus interest in engineering, which is extremely exciting for me. Our engineering II students have finished a partial 3d rendering of the academic campus and constructed a video fly through shown at an all school meeting on January 18th, just prior to the end of term 2. Designing coursework from scratch has been challenging and frustrating at times, but when projects like the campus flythrough come to fruition, it is very rewarding. The way the engineering courses have been designed emphasizes the whole student concept and encourages autonomy. Students are expected to be problem solvers, work together and generate ideas for the greater good of the school.
I take my work with the TSC very seriously, especially this year when working on the faculty laptop recommendation. I have never been the head of a committee before, and I feel that I am learning how to manage a group of diverse people and come up with professional development and technology decisions that enhance the learning environment of the classrooms on campus. I’ve presented frequently at Techie Teacher Talks, Faculty/Staff meetings, and during June week, but I feel that my greatest accomplishment with the TSC is yet to be finished. The laptop recommendation and subsequent discovery phase of testing has stretched my abilities beyond what I had expected. I’m learning how to get priority tasks accomplished within multiple teams on campus, both on the faculty (TSC) and staff (AITD) side. Working with these groups has helped me to better appreciate the unique skills of both. Through this leadership role with the TSC, I hope to enhance the use of technology on campus, by both faculty and students using tools that are intuitive and best suit the needs of the majority of users on campus.
When I look at the totality of what I have done during the past five years at Culver, I feel accomplished. I’ve received the Spivey Award, won a curriculum grant through Curriki, and have just recently become a Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellow. I’ve connected my students and myself with researchers from Purdue and Notre Dame. I learned what a transistor is, why semiconductors matter, and how to grow and characterize single atom thick layers of interlocked carbon atoms. I’ve developed relationships with mentees, fellow instructors, staff and students. I’ve blown up pumpkins in front of audiences whose age ranged from 3 to 73. I’ve taught, listened, revised and reflected. I wonder what the next five years will hold?!