Wednesday, August 31, 2016

High School Teachers are Saints... ...and Axolotls are Awesome.

The activity I participated in was the biology class at The New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School. At the time of this posting, I have been there three times, for two classes each visit.
       The classes are taught by Dr. Sam Loftus. He may very well be the world's greatest high school biology teacher. His classroom is stocked with books, anatomical models, and aquariums. Fortunately for me, he was receptive to having me join two of his classes each week this semester. I showed up ready to contribute in whatever small way Dr. Loftus asked for. I said that I'd be happy to set up reagents, grade papers, or sweep the floors. However, when I arrived, his instructions were much less constrained. "Just walk around and answer questions," he said.

        On my first visit, the students worked on a written worksheet regarding experimental design. The following week, some new additions arrived, and the four aquariums at the corner of the classroom each contained an adult axolotl. These amphibians generated a lot of interest from the students. Dr. Loftus explained the concepts of phenotypes, albinism, melanism, and GFP.  At Week 3, we began a project to create mini-biospheres out of jars containing shrimp, swamp water, and aquatic plants. As they worked on assembling the parts, I guided the students on how to zero a balance, measure mass, and use an oxygen probe to measure dissolved O2.

       The students are friendly and respectful, but like any teenagers, they are susceptible to distraction. When the students were occasionally disruptive I considered asking them to be quiet and focus, but I probably lack any authority, and I would rather have them see me as just a fellow science enthusiast. So instead of barking orders I try to keep them on task by asking them to explain a topic to me. When a group of students appears to have gotten side tracked, I sit down at their table and say something like, "Can you tell me how you got your answer for number five?" or “What is the independent variable?” This seems to work. The students readily share their understanding and discuss ideas.

       I am looking forward to assisting with their projects and seeing their performance as they work toward the science fair that will take place in October. I will post some pictures.