Wednesday, December 21, 2011


I never cared for chemistry classes. “Get it over with as quickly as possible and make sure you pass,” was what I said. But if I ever get truly interested in chemistry—interested for more than one day—which I’m not promising, I may very well owe the credit to a most remarkable teacher--Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour. It is almost 24 hours since I spent an hour with her, I am not preparing for an exam, and I still remember some of the things she taught me. Now that is something to notice!
Margaret-Ann is internationally known for her passionate teaching. She has a style that makes science accessible, relevant and interesting. “Science is not something done by a group of experts sitting in a lab somewhere,” she says. “Science is all around us, in the natural world and in our own bodies.”
Her teaching ideas are designed with a hook to draw people in, and an unshakable belief that we’ll want to be there once she’s got us.
She told me she could make a yellow compound and then shake it. As she shook it, it would turn red, then green. I was a little bit impressed at that point—a little bit. Then she told me that if we left the compound to its own devices, it would turn red, then go back to yellow.
I listened politely, but then, without even meaning to, I asked a question. “Why does it revert?”
“It’s because the dye in the compound picks up molecules of oxygen as you shake it,’ she said. “But the compound isn’t stable. So it slowly releases the oxygen again.”
It was a story, and I like stories, but since there would be no exam, I expected to forget it some time within the next few minutes. Margaret-Ann, however, was not finished with me yet. “That’s how it is with blood in our bodies,” she said. “It picks up molecules of oxygen in the lungs and the heart sends it through the body. It deposits the oxygen in the cells along the way, then goes back for more.”
I have been taught about the lungs and blood before. I hadn’t bothered to give it much thought. But when I heard myself telling the story to others, I knew that a skilled teacher had been messing with my attentions.
We got into that conversation because she was telling me, at my request, how she engaged the interest of young aboriginal students at a camp the Hope Foundation sponsored on the University of Alberta campus. “When those students came in to the lab the group was quiet. Normally I would get things going by asking questions. But that wouldn’t be the right thing here. They need time to feel that they belong. So I talked for a while and then I went right into having them make nylon.”
The process of making nylon went very well. By the time the nylon was made, the students were involved. They were ready to ask and answer questions. After that, they went on to make Bakelite.
Not missing a chance to engage me, she assured me that I would understand what she was talking about because of the work I do. I would know how important it is to consider first the needs and interests of the people you are trying to help, how important it is to hook them, to make participation irresistible to them.
The lesson ended on schedule. Margaret-Ann went away, but not without leaving something behind. For here I am today, writing about compounds on THE HOPE LADY Blog, and wondering how much the average person would know about chemistry if every teacher could teach like Margaret-Ann.

No comments: