PAEMST Spotlight: Andrea Ames
Andrea Ames teaches Biology & Chemistry at Meridian High in the Meridian School District
Check out the rest of our PAEMST Spotlight interview series here.
What is one of your favorite lessons to teach and why?
I love teaching electron configuration for a couple of reasons. It’s an incredibly important building block for many of the physical science PEs. It’s a concept that takes more than a single day to teach, but also one of those concepts that when the lightbulb goes on, it’s so fun to see that expressed on students’ faces.
The joy, pride, and sense of accomplishment when they realize the patterns on the periodic table is one of my favorite things to witness.
It validates the hard work students have done, energizes them, and gives them a sense of accomplishment. For some, it’s the first real a-ha moment they have had in science in a long time, and it propels them forward. Electron Configuration Battleship is one of my favorite ways to build fluency with this concept, and ultimately helps them identify periodic table patterns — and if the students identify the patterns themselves, they’re much more likely to remember than if I just tell them.
What is one concept your students struggle most to understand and how do you try to address this struggle?
Photosynthesis is a life science concept that can be really hard to understand. “So wait, you mean to tell me that trees take stuff out of the air and that’s where most of their mass comes from?!” It’s a tough concept to wrestle with because students don’t “feel” air — it doesn’t feel heavy and so it’s hard to wrap your mind around particles in the air having mass. Even when they know the equation for photosynthesis, even when they understand the inputs and outputs and energy components, getting to the level of conceptual understanding that most of the mass of a tree came from the air is very difficult. It requires understanding student misconceptions, and though they can vary widely, most commonly it’s due to not truly understanding that the carbon dioxide in the air can have “weight” (as they may describe it). Having dry ice on hand is a great way to open that conversation and confront misconceptions.
Where do you see more opportunity for collaborating with other disciplines to teach math or science?
I love to include aspects of history in science lessons where I can. For example, it’s engaging (and important) to include some historical context surrounding the discovery of DNA — and students remember key features of DNA structure better if they understand how it was discovered. Hanford is another example, and it’s right here in our state. It would be fun to teach a cross-curricular unit with a US History class where students learn about what was happening during WWII at the same time they were learning nuclear chemistry. There is a definite connection between standards for different subjects, and the bonus of having Hanford in our state is intriguing for students.
What are some of the jobs and pathways you are most excited to see your students preparing for?
I think this question was probably geared toward STEM fields, but in all honesty, what makes me most excited is when students have found a passion and pursue it relentlessly.
I often tell my students that it’s not my job to convince people that they all want to be scientists. We need people in other fields too! However, I want everyone to understand and appreciate science, and know enough to be an informed voter and citizen. To that end, I am equally excited for a student who wants to pursue a career in art history as I am for a student who wants to go into aerospace engineering.
Specifically within STEM, I do love to hear about students’ plans for engineering careers. There is a ton of variety under the umbrella of engineering and I love when students share how their specific field is a good fit for them.
What experiences do you think best prepared you for your teaching career?
I wasn’t always sure that I wanted to be a teacher. Growing up, science held a special place in my heart. My dad constantly gave me opportunities to do science and I was hooked. I studied biology and chemistry in college because I loved it, and I kicked around the idea of careers in medicine or genetic counseling. I only decided to go into teaching after I’d already completed my Bachelor’s degree (shoutout to PLU!). After shadowing teachers in the Tacoma area I just knew education was my calling. Making that decision after completing my undergraduate work was a crucial experience because it meant I was a little older and more mature. It was not a decision based on what I thought others expected me to do, but based on what I was passionate about. A well-meaning college friend who was headed to med school told me, “You’re too smart to be a teacher.” I have never forgotten that moment, and that experience drives me. Don’t our students deserve the absolute best?!
In the classroom, I draw inspiration both from an incredible high school biology teacher I had, and from my dad (who was also a high school science teacher). Both created authentic and engaging classroom labs and lessons, had high standards and expectations. Equally importantly, they connected with and empowered students. I strive to do the same!
How do you keep current on emerging trends in your field? Any publications, blogs, etc. that you love to follow for interesting research or stories?
I read NSTA’s publications “The Science Teacher” and “Next Gen Navigator.” I love that the articles are specific but concise enough that I can read them quickly — everyone knows that time is one of our most precious resources. I also read the emails that come through from OSPI periodically.
The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) is the highest recognition that a kindergarten through 12th grade science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and/or computer science teacher may receive for outstanding teaching in the United States. Awardees will be announced this spring.