Monday, July 30, 2012

What I should have said to my high school science teacher

I went home for a visit recently.  I grew up in Juneau, Alaska and I don't get there often.  The timing of this visit actually seemed quite lovely, here I am wondering what I am doing with my life, and I get to revisit my roots to reflect.  I got to spend some time at low tide looking at sea cucumbers and digging in tide pools, which reminded me why I enjoyed science when I was younger- it legitimized my curiosity.

At the end of the week, I ran into my high school oceanography teacher.  He was the drummer for the wedding band, so I had some time to think about if I should talk to him at all, and if so, what should I say.  In the spirit of revisiting my past, I said something like "Mr. ____, I'm not sure if you remember me.  I took your Oceanography class as a 5th year senior.  I just wanted to thank you, and let you know I earned my Ph.D. in Molecular Biology."  He laughed a little, and said, "And you owe it all to me?" He continued with pleased congratulations (he only vaguely remembered me), and then said, "In class you never can tell who is going to make it, and who is going to be a bartender for the rest of their life."  It was a sore point with me for a long time that getting out of high school was such a struggle to finish- I did a year of foreign exchange for my first senior year, and came back to finish a credit and a half and collect my diploma- but I my teachers were very supportive.  Obviously, I liked science before this time, or I wouldn't have taken Oceanography as an elective.  I didn't really need to thank him for helping me be interested in science, but after our conversation I realized what I should have said.

By the time I was a senior in high school, I understood that to get ahead academically, I had to work hard.  I worked on good study habits, and took a lot of courses that emphasized problem solving.  However, this oceanography class encouraged curiosity for its own sake.  Every day, we had to turn in 5 questions about the ocean.  They could be totally lame, or incredibly thoughtful, we got the same grade.  At first, I didn't really know how to pose questions.  How deep is the ocean?  How many kinds of fish are in the ocean?  As the course went on, and there was more content to pull from, my questions got better, How do fish sense brakish water?  How does low oxygen levels affect bacteria? But more importantly, I stopped needing to be a know-it-all.  We were just asking questions to ask them.  They almost never got answered, and it was still fun to pose them.  And that turned out to be a huge key to shaping my temperament for science.  Science is a field where curiosity is essential for driving success, but rarely rewarded directly.  I'm glad I had a chance to develop that separately in the supportive atmosphere of the high school science classroom.


  1. That is such a great lesson (turning in 5 questions) . . . I think I'll have to steal that for next quarter.

  2. Now that I think more about teaching, I realize it is a really great lesson- easy to assign, easy to grade, and students get as much out of it as they put in. It can also be a good way to get a read on the class.