Like many chemists, Patrick Gordon has long believed in the importance of exposing young people to the virtues and excitement of chemistry. “If we don’t do a good job engaging and educating teens in middle and high school, it becomes a real uphill battle to instill the confidence they need to pursue careers in chemistry or in science in general,” says Gordon, an adjunct professor at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences and chair of the ACS Northeastern Section. So when Gordon learned of the ACS Science Coaches pilot program last fall, he wasted no time signing up.
Under the pilot program, which is now beginning its second year, chemistry professionals offer their time and expertise to middle and high school teachers. After finding a teacher with whom to partner, the chemist works with the teacher to “figure out how to best utilize the scientist’s time and talents,” according to ACS Kids & Chemistry Program Manager Patricia M. Galvan, who also coordinates the Science Coaches program.
Aiming to provide support tailored to each teacher’s needs, the coaches answer student questions, conduct instructional demonstrations, assist students with lab experiments, consult on safety issues, set up field trips, and provide information or advice to teachers. “I love that the Science Coaches program takes a very personal approach to improving science education,” Galvan says.
In addition to providing the general framework for the program, ACS donates $500 to each school where a coach volunteers. The grant can be used to purchase science supplies such as goggles, thermometers, and molecular model kits to support the coach’s volunteer efforts.
The ACS Science Coaches program grew out of the ACS Board-Presidential Task Force on Education, appointed in 2008 by then-board chair Judith L. Benham, then-ACS president Bruce E. Bursten, and then-ACS president-elect Thomas H. Lane. The task force was chaired by Richard N. Zare and recommended several initiatives including the Science Coaches program.
In the first year of the program, 32 people, who were mostly ACS members, signed on to be science coaches. They came from backgrounds in industry and academia; some were retirees or graduate students. ACS members who want to help Galvan meet her goal of enrolling 75 coach-teacher pairs by Oct. 31 can get more information at www.acs.org/sciencecoaches. The pilot program will be evaluated at the end of this school year to see if it should continue.
Under the program, ACS has set a goal for coaches to meet with their chosen teacher eight times during the school year. Exactly what they do during their visits varies. “Some coaches work mostly with students, while others work with teachers,” Galvan says. “Yet in all cases, coaches’ involvement provides students with learning experiences they would not have had otherwise.”
When Gordon visited the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics & Science in Roxbury, Mass., during the last school year, he and his partner teacher, Suzy Drurey, decided to focus his involvement on helping with lab experiments such as one on soap making. “Our goal was to give students that extra bit of knowledge and excitement in seeing how chemistry relates to their everyday lives,” he says.
In addition, Gordon mentored some students who had entered the state science fair, helping them with their projects. Gordon’s involvement “made a huge impact on students,” Drurey says. “Students felt valued; they greatly appreciated that an organic chemistry professor was willing to take time out of his schedule to work with them.”
When seeking a teacher partner for the Science Coaches program, Gordon says he immediately thought of Drurey, who had recently made an impression on him when he met her during National Chemistry Week as she was chaperoning about 25 of her students at the Museum of Science in Boston. “I thought it was fantastic to see a high school teacher commit a Sunday afternoon to helping kids learn more about science,” he recalls.
Whereas some science coaches have met their teacher partners through professional events, others have found them by reaching out to local schools or through personal connections. Mark Williams, for example, approached his granddaughter’s sixth-grade science teacher, Adrienne Cauler, at North Harford Middle School in Pylesville, Md., to ask whether he could be a science coach in her classroom. She welcomed the idea and asked Williams, who is a senior environmental scientist at Teledyne Energy Systems in Sparks, Md., to give a presentation on hazardous waste to her students.
During that presentation, “I showed them that saving and treating hazardous waste is better than what was done in the past, when most hazardous refuse was just thrown into the environment to become pollution,” Williams says. “And I encouraged them to think of themselves as agents of a better future where goods would be produced using fewer hazardous materials and where hazardous by-products would be recycled instead of being discarded.
“The kids loved it, and they were so much more knowledgeable than I was at that age. They responded with lots of great questions,” Williams says. “I can’t wait to participate in the Science Coaches program again this year, and I plan to encourage my colleagues to do so as well.”
As a teacher, Cauler, too, has become a fan of the Science Coaches program. “Having a scientist come into the classroom to talk with my students has been a great way to reinforce the real-life applications of science that I am always discussing with them,” she says. “Mr. Williams did a wonderful job talking about his career and how he works as a scientist,” she adds. “Even at the middle school level, kids are thinking about what they want to be when they grow up, so it is valuable for them to come in contact with chemists and other professionals to see that scientists work in many interesting fields, doing all sorts of work.”
Although Williams’ partner teacher appreciated his involvement, not all teachers welcome would-be science coaches into their classrooms with open arms. In fact, some willing volunteers have been frustrated by their inability to find a teacher with whom to partner, Galvan says. One problem, she says, is that some teachers may misunderstand the science coach’s role, worrying that participants will encroach on their territory or criticize the way they run their classrooms.
However, so far every person who has signed on to be a science coach has come in with “an attitude of service and not one of ‘fixing a broken system,’ ” Galvan reports. “I have not had to work to convince anybody that their job is to help the teacher and that the teacher is in charge of the classroom. Instead, it is something that they tell me.”
When Gina M. Malczewski, a biochemist and associate research scientist at Dow Corning in Auburn, Mich., signed on to be a science coach, she worked to provide support tailored to the specific needs and comfort level of her teacher partner, Sarah Valley of Northeast Middle School in Midland, Mich. As she was beginning her first year as a sixth-grade science teacher, Valley says she initially wanted to match her classroom activities with those of her colleagues, who did not utilize ACS coaches. “However, when I became more confident with the material and curriculum, Gina and I were able to work together more often,” Valley says.
At their intermittent meetings, Malczewski says she simply offered ideas for possible ways she could support Valley and her students. “Sarah ultimately decided what she had time to do and when I could supplement her curriculum. We discussed her needs and what would be best for the school,” she says, adding that Valley “very wisely spent her $500 on items that can be used by many of her school’s science teachers for years to come, such as a vacuum pump and stopwatches.”
During the course of the school year, Malczewski visited the classroom to make a presentation on carbon dioxide, discussing density, solubility in water, and the sublimation of dry ice to gas. She also conducted a demonstration about water, which addressed concepts such as osmosis, surface tension, and hydrogen bonding and allowed students to analyze the pH and chlorine levels of melted snow and of river, tap, and bottled water. In addition, she arranged for a visiting ACS speaker on climate change to give an interactive presentation to an assembly of about 100 students.
Valley says she has been “very satisfied” with the Science Coaches program and hopes to be involved with it again. Likewise, Malczewski thinks that “things went well last school year,” and she plans to continue in the program.
For some, the Science Coaches program has provided a first opportunity to contribute to science education. Others, however, have found ways to leverage the program to support work they were already doing through other organizations.
For example, resources provided by the Science Coaches program have enhanced work that graduate student Zephen Specht was already doing under the National Science Foundation-funded Socrates Fellows program. That program awards 12-month fellowships to University of California, San Diego, Ph.D. students and stipends to San Diego-area teachers to work together to enhance the science classroom.
With the support of both the Science Coaches program and the Socrates Fellows program, Specht was able to start and fund an after-school ACS ChemClub at Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, Calif., where he was already working with his teaching partner, Duke Raley.
“The club began with a simple goal: to explore as wide a range of chemical principles as possible while still having fun,” Specht says. “The club met once a week for an hour, during which we would show different chemical reactions and plan for different club activities.”
Together with fellow Ph.D. student Emily Satkiewicz and chemistry teachers Raley and Jewyl Clarke, “we were able to help the club organize an outreach event with the local elementary school so that the club members could get younger children excited about science,” Specht says. “With the funds that the ACS Science Coaches program provided, the club was also able to participate in the San Diego Science Festival. The club members shared a booth with the science club at San Diego High School and ran a demonstration on how chemotherapy drugs work to treat cancer.”
Continuing as a science coach this year with Raley, Specht says he is “looking forward to getting even more students involved in learning about the chemistry that is all around them.”
Ruth Woodall echoes that sentiment. Over the past year, she has harnessed the resources of the ACS Science Coaches program to further work that she was already doing as director of Tennessee Scholars, a nonprofit organization that aims to better prepare Tennessee high school students for postsecondary education, the workforce, or the military.
Having “a passion for finding ways to help teachers to do more hands-on work in the classroom,” Woodall says, she signed on to the Science Coaches program as soon as she learned about it. She partnered with Gale Stanley, a science teacher at Jacksboro Middle School in Tennessee’s impoverished Campbell County. “She and I had regular conversations on the phone and a few face-to-face meetings,” says Woodall, who is a retired chemistry teacher.
“I am constantly looking for ways to help teachers be better, and the Science Coaches program has helped me do that,” Woodall says, adding that Stanley has now become the STEM education coordinator for her school system.
Desiree Wineland is another science coach who is passionate about the contributions she has been able to make through the program. Although Wineland does not have a degree in chemistry, she was eager to support her son’s chemistry teacher, Karen Gottsch, at Cambridge High School in Cambridge, Neb., by coordinating activities and field trips, including one the students took to a local ethanol plant, or linking students to experts in the field, she says. Wineland was also able to bring a background and an enthusiasm for science, having served in R&D at the Pentagon and at the Army Science & Technology Conference before retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2009 and moving to Nebraska to “preserve a family farming legacy.”
Wineland and Gottsch met when Wineland set out to offer her family’s vineyard and land for use as an outdoor classroom or lab—an idea she got while helping her son study the periodic table and discussing “the importance of each element in the soil for growing and harvesting grapes,” she says. Shortly thereafter, Wineland joined ACS, and under the ACS high school ChemClub program, she worked with Gottsch and Cambridge High’s agriculture teacher to help establish a chemistry/ag club at the school. She then signed on to the Science Coaches program as another way to contribute to science education.
“Our teachers are really passionate and committed to teaching their students, and so I want to support that commitment in any way I can,” Wineland says. “It’s been incredible to be part of an effort to allow students to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to the real world. I feel that I have been able to give back and inspire our future.”