Particularly after I was honored as the 2009 US Professor of the Year in the CASE/Carnegie competition, I found that I was answering a couple of questions over and over again when people would talk to me about my career. In particular, the Why Science? Question.
I have always started that story the same way, namely, Mrs. Smith’s sixth grade class.
In that class, we had a room without rows of desks. We had activity stations for doing (what I would now call) inquiry. I recall a few of these. One was a place for learning about pendular motion, which was a bunch of washers, strings, and a stopwatch. I distinctly recall working out the relationship between the swing period and the weight and the length of the pendulum. I recall an activity about geometric progression. And estimation. And gathering critters in plastic bags at recess. But what I recall the most is the day she left, during the school year, to go back to California. I recall this because all of a sudden, the room was rearranged into a sterile matrix of school desks with prefabricated posters on the wall. And that is it. I recall nothing else from sixth grade science after that point. It was only years later, of course, that I understood why that sad memory of the reordered classroom stuck with me.
Another reason I have always attributed to remembering some of these details was that the California connection was to Santa Rosa, which was a location that my upper elementary self was really keen on because I was a huge fan of Charles Schulz and the “Peanuts” strip – a version of which I was drawing, in upper elementary school, for the school newspaper (What If? the “Peanuts” gang was located in southern NH?).
I was out in Palo Alto with some friends and a few new acqaintances about 2 months ago, and while we were sitting over wine and tapas, the conversation came around the Award and then to the Why Science? Question. Just like clockwork. So I told the story about Mrs Smith, and a few other tales that followed. And then one of these people looked at me and asked, so, have you ever told her?
Um, no. We are talking about someone I only know as Mrs Smith, from part of a year in a sixth grade class, in 1968, in rural New Hampshire. Give me a break!
At which point one of my friends says, well, that sounds just like your kind of challenge.
Of course, it was. And about 6 weeks later, I was in touch with Mrs. Smith. The adventure was almost as good as the reward.
I started by looking up the email address of the current Principal at that school, to see if they had any records. They did not. But he knew there was a registry of town employees, and he looked it up and faxed it to me. Now I knew that her first name was Marie, and she got her undergraduate degree at San Francisco State College, so my memory of the California connection was affirmed.
Then I figured that she must have needed certification, and I contacted a friend of mine, who had a friend, and I cannot say too much without probably getting someone in trouble with FERPA, but suffice to say that a couple of people were sympathetic to the cause, and helped in the adventure. I then knew that Marie Smith was born in Oakland and went to Berkeley HS.
Thanks to the fact that the Berkeley HS Class of 1962 had a 45th reunion in 2007 and they put a whole bunch of information on the web, it took me all of 2 minutes to find out that Marie Bauer Smith still lived in California, went to her reunion, and told a bit about her life.
She got advanced degrees in Biology, taught at the Community College level, served as a Dean at two of these Colleges, and retired as the Vice Chancellor for a Community College district in northern CA.
The email at the reunion site was a dead end, as was the reunion organizers.
I had a few options, though. I have friends at Berkeley who do work at that school who could probably dig out some information for me.
But that was not necessary, because as it turned out Marie Bauer Smith was on Facebook.
Now, I have steadfastly refused to join any social networking sites, and all my friends and family know this. But I immediately signed up and sent her a message.
And she replied within a day. And weve exchanged lots of information, but more importantly I had the chance to tell Marie about her part in the answer to my Why Science? question.
She was never intending to go into teaching. She was a Biology major who graduated, got married, and followed her husband, a military consultant, from CA to New England. She took a couple of emergency certification classes at UNH, and got a job teaching as one of my sixth grade teachers. Her husband was relocated, again, and she left during that year.
It was the only time she ever taught at the precollege level, but she says it formed a foundation for the way she thought about education. I can certainly empathize with that idea, because it did that for me, too.
I asked her about the stellar design of her classroom, which still, 40 years later, seems like a goal that many science teachers cannot achieve.
Her reply was interesting. She said she had only those two summer classes at UNH, and she says she had no idea at all what she was doing, so she decided to do what she knew the best, namely, science.
Of course, she was doing exactly the right thing.