Upper School chemistry teacher Laura Slocum was honored this month as the 2017 recipient of the James Bryant Conant Award in High School Chemistry Teaching by the American Chemical Society. She earned this national recognition for her exceptional achievements as a teacher and for her significant contributions to the chemistry profession. (For more about the award, see https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/funding-and-awards/awards/national/bytopic/james-bryant-conant-award-in-high-school-chemistry-teaching.html)
When Ms. Slocum joined the Heathwood faculty in 2013, she brought with her more than 20 years of experience teaching chemistry at the high school and college level. But she didn’t initially have teaching on her horizon—she began her career with 14 years as a respiratory therapist, and discovered her love of teaching almost by accident. Here she talks about how she found her vocation, why she is particularly drawn to working with high school students, and what it meant to her to earn national recognition in her field.
You began your career in healthcare—what led you into chemistry, and more specifically into teaching?
I fell into high school teaching when I wasn’t even looking for a career change. I worked in hospitals as a respiratory therapist for 14 years and loved it. Then I moved to Connecticut and my church there had a K-12 school attached to it. I was involved in the youth ministry, and kids would ask me questions about their science homework. Then, two weeks before the new school year started, one of their math and science teachers left. The new teacher they hired could cover everything but chemistry, and five students who needed chemistry went to the Head and suggested he hire me. When he approached me about it, I was initially hesitant, but he asked me to pray about it. So I did, and then went back and asked him if I could see their chemistry lab. He said, “We don’t have one—and the fact that you know we need one suggests you may be just the person we’re looking for.”
So I agreed to teach a chemistry class there, and I had one week to prep, and I was still working fulltime at the hospital. But I loved it. It was fun, and I was young enough to feel like I could do anything. We had to improvise—we did labs in the school kitchen. I got through the year, and then went back to school to do what I’d discovered I really loved. For several years, I was working as a respiratory tech, going to school, and teaching that class.
What do you find most rewarding about teaching chemistry?
It’s very rewarding to help kids know how things work and why things do the things they do. It’s all about, how can we figure out all the things we cannot see, and how did all the scientists who came before us make all these connections? How can we learn to do what they did? I’ve recently been teaching chemistry in a chronological way, so we’re looking at how scientists build on each other’s work.
Many people find chemistry daunting—how do you help students approach it with more interest and more confidence?
One of the things we do, especially here at Heathwood, is begin with hands-on, real-world applications before we dig into abstract concepts. So we do an experiment or a few small activities before we start working through the concept. What that allows us to do is make observations, and think as a group about what kinds of inferences we can draw from what we’re seeing. That allows the students to be more active learners, they are observing for themselves instead of being told what to think or what to look for. Then, when we get into all the math, I try to keep reminding them that even when it seems complicated, we’re just using computation skills they’ve been using since middle school. I try to keep it from being daunting by helping them see that in many respects, it’s the same patterns over and over again.
You’ve stayed very active in professional organizations, which is not typically expected of high school teachers as it is for college instructors. What attracted you to that kind of professional involvement?
I had an amazing department head at my school in Connecticut, who told me, “You’re asking us questions we can’t answer, so I’ve signed you up for a conference in New York, because you should get connected with people who can really answer your questions.” I went and met people who became mentors to me for the first decade of my career—I was able to bounce ideas off them and see what other people were doing on the cutting edge of high school instruction. So over time, I became more involved. I have been so grateful to those who planted seeds in me that I wanted to give back as I got older. So that’s what motivates a lot of the presentations and professional service I do now.
It’s true that college instructors are typically more active in the profession, and I actually started down the higher education path at one point, when I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in chemistry at Notre Dame. But when I was teaching at the college level during grad school, I realized I was more drawn to teaching high school kids. They’re so inquisitive and open to new and different ideas, and they’re ok with having not figured out who they are and where they want to go professionally. My family is all in business, and I wouldn’t have discovered my own love of science if it weren’t for my high school teachers.
What did winning the Conant Award mean to you? How does it feel to earn national recognition from your peers?
I was nominated by a former professor of mine, Dr. Marcy Towns. She is internationally renowned, so it meant a lot that she thought I’d earned that kind of recognition. Then, last summer, I got a call from the president of the American Chemical Society that I had won the award, and I sat down and started crying. My initial feeling was, I can’t believe this. I am very honored. When I was introduced to give my talk during the Teachers Program on Sunday in San Francisco, I got to see and hear some of the quotes from my supporting letters written by Dr. Scouten and Jenny Horton, Class of 2015, and I was even more honored and blessed by their words.
What brought you to Heathwood after years of teaching in the Northeast and Midwest, and what’s kept you here?
In 2012, I went to the National Cathedral School in Washington DC for a one-year appointment. They brought me in to show them how I teach chemistry because they were interested in making some pretty significant pedagogical changes. When I was looking for a follow-up position, I interviewed at Heathwood and loved what they were doing in the science program here. It had always been my passion to have independent research projects with students, so the Honors Science program was very exciting. And there’s an ongoing openness here to refining the curriculum to serve our students as well as possible. Recently, for example, we transitioned from a physics-biology-chemistry sequence to teaching chemistry before biology, and the kids in biology are now saying that’s helped them a lot because there’s so much chemistry in biology. And we’ve recently added a one-semester organic chemistry class to expose students to organic so it’s not completely new to them when they get to college. We’re a college prep school, so why not prep them for that?
What do you see students gaining from the study of science even when it’s not an area of expertise they’ll need for their careers?
Science is a discipline that involves a lot of experiential learning. I like to have students do small group collaborative learning, so they can work through how they communicate and share ideas with each other. That’s important in science, and it’s also a big part of life, and of almost any profession. Work is usually done in teams.
What’s one fun fact about you that your students might be surprised to know?
I love to cross-stitch and have the chemistry stamp about half done.