Small Ideas, Large Impacts

Karen Avery

I would be proud if my students go into science, and some of them will. But many won’t. For now, I would love them to have fun and explore, unlocking both the simple and complex secrets of life for themselves.

For instance, when they ask, “Mrs. Avery, I fed the lizard mealworms … did you put beetles in the tank?”

Or “Why did some of the flowers turn into pods, and some didn’t?”

Or “Wait, that apple is a ripened ovary?”

I love those accidental discoveries. So, is a love for unelicited discoveries the most important thing that I can foster in them - or is there something bigger? What, in the end, do we want for all our students? In many cases, we share as much time with our students as we do with our own families, and we treasure our students as well.

Ultimately, I want to teach them to be positive contributors to humanity and happy members of our big and evolving world - but what does that mean? Like any lesson, once we define our goal, we need to dissect that goal into the skills or qualities that we need to foster.

It would be difficult for any of us to decide what we want for our students without acknowledging the fabric of experiences that have shaped us. I am fortunate to work with a few teachers who skillfully weave important lessons into their subject matter. Their students know that they are being taught science, English, music, or math. Meanwhile, these teachers are also guiding these students toward lifelong understandings: the importance of being a lifelong learner and the significance of being a compassionate human. I, like any good thief, watch the actions of these teachers closely.

Going back further, I am an educator now because at a critical point in my high school career, a teacher recognized that I was a struggling teen, the possibilities for my future plummeting with each bad decision. In title, she was my algebra teacher, but the day she pulled me out of class and told me that she believed that I was much more than the rumors about my life outside of school portrayed me to be, she became an important touchstone for my future. Looking back on this interaction reminds me of the impact teachers have on the young adults around us as they develop their values and self-image.

Some of the most important skills are those that students can be reluctant to learn. While their parents and society are pushing them to achieve and progress, I am attempting to convince them that failure is important, and that hard work and struggle provide important lessons. Taking creative risks is essential, even if the results are sometimes unexpected. I want my students to be patient with themselves even as I learn to be patient with myself.

Students should discover that learning for learning’s sake is important, even if just for interesting conversation, and that working with people we don’t know or don’t agree with often yields rich results. I want my students to realize that when they ask questions, they are showing strength and initiative, not vulnerability. I want to teach them that growth is built on pursuing questions that lead to more questions in science and elsewhere.

I chose science as a platform to foster these skills. The words “science” and “progress” are often coupled. How can we teach our students to be analytical about contributing to advancements that are truly advancements? Not all of my students are going into science. Some will be applying their high school experiences to careers in music, theatre, law, business, or other unpredictable directions. All will serve some role in society, possibly as voters, board members, landowners, parents, caregivers, members of the military, or just astute conversationalists.

The implications of a curious mind as it applies to the natural world are far-reaching. Even when students share their ideas and opinions on social media, they are changing the world. Artists apply their knowledge about natural systems to their work. Voters elect policymakers based on what voters know about their world. Parents teach their children how to choose healthy foods and to be active. Landowners decide what species to plant in their yards, how to use power and water, how to get to work each day.

Small things have large impacts. In a world that is approaching 7.4 billion people, it can be difficult for each of our students to realize that their choices have an impact on that world. Using an analogy at the molecular level, we see so many places where small things have large impacts. Replacing just one nucleotide in a DNA molecule can have a dramatic outcome on the resulting protein, which can have a profound effect on the organism in which the change takes place. The impact of this change may never be recognized by us, or perhaps the impact will be discovered much later. I would love if each student left my classroom knowing that the things they do, how they use their gifts and their knowledge, are important, if even on a small scale.

The most important thing I endeavor to teach my students is a collection of skills and knowledge that I hope will help them to learn about our world and about living systems. I want to help them find ways of looking at science that inspire them to contribute to their world effectively, allowing them to make small changes with big impacts. Ultimately, I hope that this ability brings them joy and excitement for the natural phenomena around them.

Karen Avery is a biology teacher and Science National Honor Society advisor at Montoursville Area High School in Montoursville, PA. She and her students coordinate the annual Biology Teachers Workshop at Lycoming College. Karen also enjoys collaborating with teachers and dear friends she has made through the Center for Biomolecular Modeling. When not contemplating how to make the next lesson a little better, she plays the role of biggest fan and support team to her two offspring.