Teaching Science

This week, Worcester Academy’s science department chair and teacher of physics and engineering has been out on paternity leave (congratulations, Derek!). At our school, we try to cover for each other when we have to be out. I opted to take two of Derek’s classes, an engineering class and a physics class, for a few reasons: 1) I like to help out when I can because it can be hard to get your classes covered, 2) I really wanted a peek into what Derek is doing in his classes, and 3) I like to see how students work in classes outside my subject.

Derek is a project-based educator. It was fascinating to visit his classes, even his absence, and see what his students are doing. I subbed in his engineering class yesterday. Students were building a wind tunnel and constructing cars using modeling clay. I know this is leading up to an interesting experiment, but I admit I don’t know a lot about it. I was fascinated watching the students work. They got right to work and knew exactly what to do in Derek’s absence. They were busy the entire time. In fact, I had to make them stop so they could clean up.

In physics today, students were conducting a test using Hot Wheels ramps. The students had to construct the ramps so that their cars, set loose at the top of the ramp, would fly cleanly through  hoop on a stand. I think that if Derek had been present, the plan was for the hoop to be on fire. Thankfully, I didn’t have to do anything that involved fire, but when the students were ready to do the final test, they had to let me know, and I needed to watch. It was so exciting. I have to admit I’ve never taken physics, so I don’t feel qualified to explain the purpose of the experiment. The students were so nervous for each other. One student (whom I also teach), was also anxious for the other groups (besides her own) to be successful in their experiment. The students had to turn in their lab writeups. All period long, there was action. Students were measuring, checking measurements, running tests. Cars were flying across the room. Again, students knew just what to do and got right to work, even in Derek’s absence.

One aspect of subbing for Derek that fascinated me was watching my own students in a science class. Students who rarely speak in my class or are quiet and reticent are active and participate in Derek’s classes. Part of that is their comfort level with the material. I am thinking in particular of international students who do not speak English as a first language. It was interesting to see this completely different side of my students. It was fascinating to see their level of confidence shift in a different subject.

I have to admit I’m jealous of these kids. I wish I had a science teacher who had made science half as interesting as Derek does. I really want to go back and observe when Derek is present. His classes ran so well with minimal help from me. I feel like his students were doing all of the work. I spoke to a few of them. I said to one girl today, “This seems like such a fun class,” and she said, “Yes, and we do stuff like this every day.” To a boy in engineering yesterday, I said the same thing, and he said, “Yes, it’s my favorite class.”

I can’t believe how much I learned from Derek even though he wasn’t present. His classes are so engaging, and he really gets project-based learning. Our students are lucky. I’m lucky to have him for a colleague. He has much to teach the rest of us.

If you get a chance to visit a class outside your domain, you should do it. It’s really interesting to see your students working in a different subject, especially when it’s under the guidance of such a gifted educator.

You can follow Derek on Twitter and read his blog.

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