I have been working as an Instructor with the Boston-based educational non-profit organization, Science from Scientists, since the fall of 2013. This was a lateral career move for me after a number of years in the biotechnology industry and as a project manager in academia (more on those in another post–maybe).
SfS Instructors visit public schools every two weeks to provide fun, hands-on science lessons for students in grades 4-8. Recently I was interviewed for the SfS website and asked to share my experiences, especially with moving from the Boston area to the SF Bay area. The full interview starts on the front page, and the Q & A can be found here.
Q: What is it like to work at Science from Scientists? / What is a typical day for you at Science from Scientists?
A: One of the things I like best about working at Science from Scientists is that there really isn’t such a thing as a typical day. In the two and a half years I’ve been with SfS, I’ve taught at diverse schools, I’ve taught Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Earth Science, and I’ve taught students in grades 5, 6, and 7. I’ve also performed in Science Theater at the Wellesley STEM Expo, taught a summer enrichment “camp” and written a curriculum module. The variety has given me a bigger picture of what middle-grade science education is like these days than I would have gotten with a more traditional teaching job. It also appeals to the generalist in me. I hadn’t imagined that as a neuroscientist I’d get to teach astronomy or about pendulums.
Q: What makes Science from Scientists different from other educational or science groups you’ve worked with?
A: For two years I also taught with an educational start-up that provided after school science enrichment and classes for homeschoolers. I developed and taught my own year-long curriculum in Molecular Biology, Genetics, and Neuroscience for my classes there. It was wonderful and exciting to have so much autonomy in that setting, but when I went to my SfS schools I also appreciated being able to implement an already tested and validated curriculum, and having a community of other instructors who could share their own experiences with the same lesson plans. That enabled me to concentrate more on other aspects of teaching that I need to learn, such as classroom management. I also love the mission of Science from Scientists, which is to serve the public school student population, especially including students in underserved, under-resourced school districts.
Q: What is the company culture like at Science from Scientists?
A: The company culture at SfS is upbeat and positive. It takes me back to why I was interested in science in the first place when I was a kid. I didn’t have a great experience in middle school science myself, and I was steered back towards becoming a biologist by a really wonderful high school biology teacher. I want to help more kids to be able to have the good, fun type of experiences I had with science, and I see SfS as a great place to do that.
I also appreciate the flexibility of the work at SfS. I’ve always taught in one or two schools per semester, which is less than some of the other instructors, but for my current stage of family life, it’s very helpful that I can work part-time. I also have a pair of serious hobbies–music and creative writing–that the flexible schedule and part-time work allow me to pursue. On the other hand, it’s also nice to have a predictable schedule, to know that, say, Wednesdays are going to be my teaching days and then I can schedule other parts of my life around that. I’ve been in other flexible jobs where the benefits of flexibility were partially offset by the complicated logistics needed to make the flexibility happen, and SfS avoids that pitfall.
Q: Why should someone apply to work for Science from Scientists?
A: If you like teaching and you like middle-grade-age kids, SfS is a great opportunity. I heard about SfS from a former instructor when I was interviewing for a different job. I was interested in getting into teaching, but I wasn’t ready to commit to getting a Masters Degree in Education, and I wasn’t even sure what age group or subject within science I wanted to teach. SfS was just what I needed. It has a great system in place to train and mentor new instructors who may not have much experience with this student age group, or much teaching experience in general. SfS also gives you the opportunity to teach different grade levels and subjects to figure out what you like best, or to learn something new in a supportive setting.
Finally, I think the student population that SfS works with is a great age group to be teaching. The students are old enough to think critically and ask great questions. But at the same time they’re still at a stage where they have a sense of wonder and can just say, “hey, this is really cool!”
Q: What was it like transitioning from MA to CA?
A: The transition was actually pretty smooth, perhaps one of the least stressful aspects of moving from the Boston area to the SF Bay Area after 17 years. (We moved because of my husband’s job at Google). The SfS office is much smaller out here than in Boston, but Warren Long does a great job and the instructor group is close-knit and supportive.
I was also thrilled when I got to my new school in Brisbane and saw that it was located up on a hillside not far from the SF Bay. It’s like a little peaceful world apart. I wish I could have gone to 7th grade there. And this semester I’ve just started working at the Khan Academy lab school, about which I’ve been curious already. I first heard about the Khan Academy videos from my then 6th grade son and some of my homeschool students who really liked it, but I only recently found out that Khan Academy also has an actual school with a physical location. It’s going to be exciting to be part of a school that’s at the forefront of innovations in education!
As I’m getting to know the area better I’m discovering that there’s a lot of opportunity for growth here. California, like Massachusetts, is among the best states in the country for science education and tech entrepreneurship, but there are still populations that are being left behind, and those students need, and deserve, the best education they can get.
Q: What is your favorite classroom memory/experience?
A: My favorite classroom experiences all have to do with making connections, with seeing a student light up with something new they’ve experienced or learned. There was the student who stayed after class to show us the Jacob’s Ladder she’d made at home for her school science fair project. She was so excited and proud of it. Or one year right before Christmas we were teaching the Celestial Mechanics module, which is about the phases of the moon, solstices, equinoxes, and tides. There was a student in the last class of the day who volunteered to be the one who held the tire to demonstrate the tides. It was the first time I’d ever seen her volunteer for anything in class. She was normally one who was considered difficult to reach, and I just remember how her eyes were shining as she held the tire around her waist and we stretched it to show high and low tide. It felt like Christmas right there.
I’m sort of embarrassed to say so, but I never understood the phases of the moon myself until I taught that module. Recently I was watching the movie, “The Revenant” with Leonardo diCaprio. His character is alone in the rugged prairie of Montana or somewhere, and the movie demonstrates the passage of time by showing the moon periodically in different phases. The moon goes from “D” to “O” to “C,” just like we tell the kids it does, as the movie progresses and the character makes his way back to civilization, and to life, from the brink of death. Having that knowledge of how the moon’s phases wax and wane in an orderly way made watching the movie a richer experience.