Learning to Look at Rocks

Learning to Look at Rocks

An Interview with Master Teacher of Science Dominic Martel

Dominic Martel earned a B.S. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. He has taught Earth Science, Biology, and Chemistry and is the Master Science Teacher at Cicero Preparatory Academy in Scottsdale. He has taught at the school for six years and is among their most long-serving faculty.

 

AT WHAT IS SCIENCE PRINCIPALLY AIMED?

I think science is aimed at beauty: by beholding beautiful things we discover truths about the natural world. As a scientist, I am animated not merely by the pursuit of knowledge, but by a love for the complexity and beauty of cells and animals and geological forms.

Marie Curie writes that when radium was initially discovered no one knew it would be useful in hospitals. Initially it was discovered simply for the beauty of science. The outworking of discoveries can and should be usefulness, but it that not the primary goal. I think a liberal arts school should ground students in pure science, and then they can look for its applications.

HOW DOES SCIENCE HELP US BECOME MORE HUMAN?

To poke and prod the world is the most natural thing for children, but contemporary young people often don’t have enough experience with the physical world. I try to correct that in my classes by, for example, asking students to observe and draw rocks for one to two days. Most of my students tell me they have never looked at a rock for more than thirty seconds at a time. At the end of the activity I have students telling me, “I didn’t know that a rock was this complex, that were was so much texture and color and nuance in things I walk on every day.”

HOW IS SCIENCE A LIBERAL ART?

I have so much fun teaching science as drama (and not just by dressing in costumes and role playing as various scientists, which I also love to do). Science is the process of discovery: students are presented with a problem and asked to develop their own solutions. If we look back at Aristotle, the dramatic structure is tension and catharsis, the establishment of a problem and working out solutions. Real, pure science makes the catharsis of discovery is so much sweeter.

WOULD YOU SAY THAT YOU TEACH SCIENCE SOCRATICALLY?

Yes. While I do not expect a biology teacher to Socratically derive the Kreb cycle, for instance, the scientific process is fundamentally Socratic. For instance, I often ask students: given this system, what would happen if a certain acid was formed? Then they can play with multiple variables at the same time. It starts with what we clearly observe, and what inferences we can make from those observable truths.

HOW DO YOU DO THIS PRACTICALLY IN YOUR LESSONS?

Here’s an example: “Phlogiston theory” was an early attempt to explain what comes out of fire when it burns. The idea was overturned in the eighteenth century, but I allow my students to actually believe phlogiston is real for about a month until they prove it wrong. It takes them weeks to figure out. We should ask students to investigate and discover why phlogiston is not real, or why the periodic table is built the way it is.

I teach the history of chemistry chronologically. We start in the fourth century BC and so, on day one of class, I deny the existence of the atom. I ask the students, how do we even know it exists? Convince me. They have to push that view to the breaking point until they know there have to be more elements. I have a stack of periodic tables hanging on my wall. The first one is just the four elements; on the bottom is the modern periodic table. When we discover new elements, we peel off one table and see the next one. The students know that there are more tables underneath—the truth is there, but it will not be accessible until we discover it. We do not get to the modern periodic table until the middle of the fourth quarter. Experimentally testing and revising ideas takes time, but is actually doing science. This teaches intellectual humility and empathy. It teaches students to have courage to evaluate whether things are true or not.

HOW DO YOU CONDUCT LABS?

My students design almost all of the labs. One of my favorite pedagogical tools is pretending to know almost nothing. I start by posing a question, and then they have to design experimental schematics to test it. For example, I ask what factors affect the pressure of a gas, then they say we need a thermometer, or something to measure pressure. As they brainstorm I bring out the tools they suggest. I already know what the lab will be like, but I guide them to the protocol by letting them figure it out and revise it as they go.

IF SCIENCE IS SUCH AN ONGOING PROCESS OF DISCOVERY, HOW DO YOU CONCLUDE A SCHOOL YEAR?

On a cliffhanger. A well-designed science lesson should have a moment of catharsis, but there should still be something unsettled. You do not want students to think they have completely mastered the subject. I tell them: “We have a pretty good idea now, but there is still more to discover, and you might be the one to do it. Go be that person who wants to discover just because they want to behold the beauty of things.”

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