Last year we heard from Royal Society of Chemistry member Robert Thomas, who volunteers his time to share his chemistry experiences with students in school. Now teacher Michael Miehl shares his experience of the partnership with Rob, including an exciting school field trip to PittCon 2019.
By Michael Miehl, Sherwood High School AP Chemistry Teacher
"It was a dream come true" I told my 50+ students on the bus departing for the Pittsburgh Conference (PittCon 2019) in downtown Philadelphia. I was greeted by a round of applause and relief that we didn’t lose anyone in the sprawling Pennsylvania Convention Center.
This field trip, which also included chemistry teachers Dr Mary Baker and Dr Cathy Cross, was the culmination of a decade-long partnership with American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) volunteer and Royal Society of Chemistry member, Robert Thomas. It all began in 2008 when our Resource Teacher introduced me to Rob with the idea of having him give periodic talks on interesting chemistry-themed topics. At that time, Rob was a volunteer with the AAAS STEM Volunteer Program in Montgomery County, who are a group of retired and working STEM professionals who volunteered their time to bring the real world of STEM into ten school districts in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Ten years later, they have a total of over 200 volunteers and Rob leads the program in MCPS, with over 100 volunteers, supporting 143 teachers in 94 different schools.
The partnership has worked wonderfully well for us and has grown to include all five chemistry teachers at my school this year. This snowballed into going on field trips to local chemistry labs – from the police department’s forensic lab to the local drinking water testing facility, to the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). Rob is also an active science writer, having written four textbooks and almost 100 articles. His work leads him to make frequent visits to PittCon, where he teaches workshops and gives talks on his specialized field of inorganic mass spectroscopy. Rob never said, "You should go to PittCon," but rather would always bring back pictures, "freebies", and an interesting story or two about his experiences. When I found out PittCon was coming to Philadelphia, only two and a half hours away, it seemed only natural that I should look into bringing my students there.
The students almost unanimously agreed PittCon was an amazing experience. Although our schedule allowed us to stay only a few hours, students were able to successfully attempt the various "lab gauntlet" activities and grab various promotional materials. Not to mention listening to sales reps or field experts explain their products. To a person, these experts were very personable and brought fairly complicated (and expensive!) equipment down to the level a high school student could understand. And whenever they got to a vendor’s booth where Rob’s books were on display, it was always good for an extra "freebie".
The students were the first to benefit from Rob Thomas’ presence in my classroom. Students learned how the concepts they are learning now apply to solve real-world problems. What was somewhat unexpected was how I benefitted as a professional teacher. Rob’s enthusiasm and experiences encouraged me to look into taking students outside the classroom on field trips, which brought us to PittCon 2019. It was a real pleasure to make students aware of these opportunities, who otherwise may have never considered a career path in chemistry. Who knows where we will go next? PittCon doesn’t return to Philadelphia for a few more years, but I’m already looking into pursuing more field trips in the future. Thank you, Rob for making me a better chemistry teacher!
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