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Musings on Teaching and Learning, Reflections and Serendipity

Headshot of Terry Lashley

I have always been interested in science, mathematics, music, and literature…in that order. Prior to high school graduation, my chemistry and physics teacher encouraged me to think about a career in the science field. I recall him telling me that I had the aptitude and skillset for a career in science. Even though that was a very long time ago, I remember that conversation so well—I even remember what I was doing and where I was standing in the classroom. No one had ever talked with me about my career plans. Going to college was an absolute and I was considering pharmacy school and not much beyond that.

The teacher was a great storyteller and one day he shared a personal story with our class. He spoke about some of his own professional learning experiences, located about 1,000 miles from our school in Tennessee. The stories shared were so interesting and I always wanted to learn more! My advanced mathematics teacher was a math guru, quirky and comical, and he really knew his mathematics! So, I also had a solid math background which I knew would be needed for a science career.

Fast forward. Following high school graduation, I entered my first year of college with a focus on science and mathematics. As an undergraduate college student, I deliberately avoided any courses referencing history in the title or description. As many students do, I changed my major course of study to biology and physical science, with a secondary education certification. However, in my senior year of college, I discovered I needed 3-credits in history to graduate in December. I scanned the course offerings looking for the most expedited and least painful option, a class that met daily for one month, and found a course called “1864 to Present.”  Our class marched quickly (I trudged) through the time period, and I ended up with a list of names, contributions or crimes, locations, and dates for specific events to memorize because I knew it would be tested. I received the 3 credits needed to graduate.

That same summer, I had the opportunity and time to take a graduate-level, 8-credit-hour physics class. I was the only undergraduate student. The class was a 12-week, 6-hours per day, National Science Foundation (NSF) Program: the Harvard Project Physics (HPP) and it was perfect! HPP presented a sophisticated, conceptual understanding of physics from a historical perspective. Most importantly, I learned about why new ideas and technological gains were made at specific times in history. We learned about the associated history by authentic engagement in new and revised concepts of motion, mechanics, electromagnetism, atomic theory models, and the nucleus with the availability of the materials and equipment needed to conduct experiments. We did not work by ourselves at a lab station, but in a team with others who had similar interests and different strengths. Topics covered included Science and the evolution of art and architecture, waves, harmonics, acceleration and velocity, the physics of music and acoustics, celestial motion, lenses, waves properties, light as a particle and a wave, and so much more. I began to understand how I might improve and enhance education for others, especially for science and mathematics students.

Fast forward again. I am a science teacher and was recruited to design and teach a new science class called the Science Seminar for gifted science students. I say recruited because I was asked if I would consider adding another course preparation. I would have said yes anyway but the “icing on the cake” was that I was provided with a certified teaching assistant to help me with my other assigned courses in science and reading. Our middle school was already organized as grade-level teams, and we had willing students and parents.

The textbooks and pedagogies were non-traditional and included: Sagan’s Cosmos; Adler’s Six Great Ideas; Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man; and Schaefer’s and Sleeper’s Facing History and Ourselves. A typical class would include Socratic inquiry regarding assigned readings in their texts and time thinking about any future problems the students might encounter or be asked to solve. Students were encouraged to explore and pursue their interests; however, there were guidelines for their work. All student projects or topics had to have a structured plan and be approved by me before individuals or teams could begin implementation. The required science and mathematics content had to be a part of their project and standardized tests were not considered problematic. Students were learning history, science, and other disciplines at the same time. They were also encouraged to explore the “why” in depth. With the use of the Ascent of Man materials, the students explored a 25-million-year history from early humans through modern people. In reality, I was learning about and with my students.

For example. Students also discovered that progress in science and mathematics takes time and could be dangerous for the individual professing new ideas. In each era, the advances in science, technology, and mathematics were supported by gains in knowledge, missteps, validation of ideas, and, sometimes, controversies. Using the knowledge available in the second century, Greek astronomer, mathematician, and geographer Claudius of Ptolemy (90-168 AD) proposed a geocentric universe with complex epicycles and the center of the epicycle moving in larger, very complicated orbits around the Earth. This was in direct conflict with evidence, but the idea of a geocentric universe had been accepted for centuries.

The Geocentric universe was challenged as inaccurate through the work of Copernicus (1473-1543), Kepler (1571-1630), and Galileo (1564-1642). Another astronomer, Giordano Bruno (1548-1576), contributed to and was in support of the Copernicus (Heliocentric) sun-centered system. However, Bruno also contributed his belief that the universe was infinite and there were other stars and planets similar to our own. This was a little too radical and conflicted with Catholic Church teaching and doctrine. Bruno also ridiculed the earlier, geocentric, ideas about the solar system. Ultimately, Bruno was arrested as a heretic, imprisoned, and interrogated for 6 years, tried, and found guilty by the Roman Inquisition of being an obstinate heretic, and was then “denied the customary mercy of strangulation,” and was gagged and burned alive in Rome’s marketplace. There is now a statue of Bruno in the Roman Marketplace (Campo de Fiori) and Italians have adopted him as a martyr for the cause of freedom of thought.

What about Galileo? Although Galileo opposed the geocentric model, he did not receive harsh imprisonment in a dungeon, interrogation, or death sentence, as Bruno, for his ideas. Galileo made many contributions to astronomy which were backed up with evidence and he had friends. Consequently, although he was tried and convicted of being “vehemently suspect of heresy” by the Roman Inquisition, he was spared Bruno’s fate through what we would now call a plea deal by acknowledging his wrongdoing. However, he did receive a life sentence but was not confined to a dungeon. He was imprisoned for 11 years in his comfortable home and the homes of others where he continued to work on his science, inventions, and astronomical theories until his death in 1633.

Now, back to my high school teacher in Clearbrook, Minnesota (it is an exceedingly small town – you might be able to find it on a map). The conversation with my chemistry teacher was so relevant to me, ideas of engaging in a science career that went beyond a textbook…or any printed page. The idea of “engaging more deeply in science” was what I wanted; reading about what others had done was not enough for me.

One summer I learned and applied for a Department of Energy (DOE) High School Honors program serving as a liaison. It was a 2-week, residential program for selected high school students from all 50 states and a few European countries. The students were assigned to many different Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) directorates in many STEM disciplines. The student excitement of being selected was palpable as they were placed to work alongside teams of world-class scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. I was also excited to visit the students while they were engaging with the experts and witnessing “real science” and active learning. All programs were designed to encourage students to consider science careers and encourage the teachers to generate their own learning experiences and consider what they might share from those with their students. Most of the participants characterized their experiences as transformative because they had learned more about the how and why of science. Educators indicated it would change their teaching.

I sent a thank you letter to the ORNL Office of University and Science Education sharing what I learned and that I would welcome future opportunities. Not long after my note was received, I was offered a consulting contract to manage an outreach program of professionals which included a materials scientist, veterinarian, ecologist, physicist, mathematician, and engineer. I readily accepted. Approximately one year later, I was offered a full-time position as the Precollege Programs and Partnerships’ Team Leader. In that position, I helped to design, staff, and facilitate:

  • Student competitions
  • Meet with like-minded individuals at the other DOE Science Laboratories
  • Annual 8-week research experiences for educators from across the nation
  • A Water Quality Institute for Museum Educators
  • Research appointments for the American Chemical Society and TRIO students,  
  • Partnerships with multiple higher education entities
  • A partnership with an all-women’s university and providing mentoring opportunities
  • K-12 partnerships with Tennessee schools/systems
  • Host promising students supported by the Anna Mendez Foundation in Puerto Rico

What about Serendipity? Can you guess where my high school teacher’s summers were spent decades ago? You know a little more about my personal priorities and passions. I encourage you to share with others by encouraging them to pursue their passions!

If you are still reading this blog, thank you. Reading a report or a book can provide information on a topic or be entertaining. A true story brings evidence and significance to new possibilities for how we can contextualize, encourage, and educate others…and our future workforce, especially in STEM fields.