I’m a professional nerd. I get paid to be a nerd, to be the nerdiest one in the room, and to be the most knowledgeable nerd in the room.
Okay, who am I kidding? I’m a science teacher. That’s even better than being a professional nerd. My job is to get 7th graders interested in science. Well, not exactly. 7th graders are naturally interested in science. My job is to teach them critical thinking, reading, and writing skills without ruining their innate middle school love of science.
The first step, as I teach my students, is to ask questions. Always ask questions. Where does electricity come from? Can a woman get pregnant while she is pregnant? Why don’t they put all of the money currently in fossil fuels towards researching more efficient ways to collect, store, and distribute energy from renewable sources? Why can’t I make a clone army?
The second step is to learn how to answer those questions. Depending on the type of question, the answer can be found with a simple Google or Wikipedia search. When they reach high school and college, finding the answers will require more refined skills in internet searching, including the ability to determine the accuracy and validity of various sources. They will also learn to ask librarians, read textbooks, and eventually, seek out journal articles. They will read about past experiments and determine whether the scientist had a controlled study and a large enough sample size. They will understand the limitations in funding and participants, and the limitations in designing a perfect experiment. This doesn’t mean they will discount the experiments; rather, they will use their experience and education to determine how these limitations may have affected the data and how the experiment can be improved for next time.
Hopefully, they will reach the level at which they can no longer search for previously-discovered answers, and they will have to find the answers themselves. They will have to meticulously study all previous research and determine the best testable hypotheses to answer their questions. They will have to write grant proposals and design the best experiments possible with their limited resources.
When they have reached the last of their time or funding, they will collect the data, run statistical analysis, put it through Matlab, or find another way to create magical graphical and tabular representations of their work. They will realize that all the lab reports they wrote in middle school and high school (about which they complained, and complained, and complained) have prepared them for this moment, to finally put the finishing touches on their Masters theses and PhD dissertations and journal articles to submit for peer review.
I wear a lab coat every Friday. At first, it was an opportunity for me to reminisce about my years in the lab and to finish my last classes of the week strong. When students and colleagues smiled at me on that first Lab Coat Friday, thought about how nerdy I looked, it made me smile back, and I taught my classes with enthusiasm that I thought was lost earlier in the week. Since then, Lab Coat Friday has become an opportunity to show my pride in my nerdiness and to tell students about all the wonderful and lucrative science careers they can pursue after college, from volcanologist to field ecologist.
In the meantime, I prepare them for internal and statewide assessments, because it is important that they have a foundation of science content knowledge so that they can be, well, functional human beings. They need to know how the human body systems work together, so that they know how to make better decisions about their health and know what questions to ask a doctor. They need to know how to understand a weather report, and when to stock up on supplies in anticipation of a major hurricane (or when it’s just media hype, and they should be ready for work or school the next day).
It is also important that they walk away from middle school science with good test scores. And so I read and reread state standards, write my own tests, and work backwards into lesson plans for over 180 days of school, over 180 individual lessons, each lesson building upon the last. Each lesson bridges the gap between what they know and what they should know, and then pushes them even further. I analyze test scores and student response data and make sure that when state testing comes, they are ready to go, #2 pencils in hand, still filled with the curiosity and enthusiasm for science that they had on the first day of school.
I want them to have good assessment scores so that people don’t see our students and think, Oh, they’re from that city. I want people to see the scores and say, Wow, those students are smart, and are outperforming students in much wealthier school districts. Wow, those students are opening up opportunities for themselves that they may not have had otherwise. Wow, those students are going places.
But at the end of the day, we show our students their state assessment scores on bar graphs and talk about percentages. We analyze our data together, because at the end of the day we’re all nerds, and we love to get our analytics on.
At the end of the day, knowing that I set the foundation for countless children to go on to think critically, make discoveries and contribute in meaningful ways makes being a professional nerd all that much sweeter!
Robin has been a professional nerd since 2011; that is, she is a 7th grade science teacher. She loves reading and watching science fiction and is working on creating her own young adult fantasy series. She prefers Star Trek to Star Wars because she enjoys the plot-driven social commentary, rather than fast-paced action sequences. She enjoys video games, but only those with graphic technology prior to 2003 because anything newer makes her dizzy.