Brian Nelson teaches at Los Alamos Middle School in Los Alamos, New Mexico, a small, research-focused town nestled in the mountains of northern New Mexico. He primarily teaches 8th grade physical science, but has also taught science and other subjects for grades 6-8. He worked with the New Mexico Public Education Department to help write the end-of-course exam for 8th grade science, and he currently serves on the superintendent's advisory board for the school district.
Question 1: Why did you become a teacher? Did you always want to teach?
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and originally went to college to study computer science. Midway through my first year, I realized that I wanted something more hands-on, and transferred to the physics department. After graduating, I then decided I wanted to be a college professor and started working on a PhD in physical oceanography at Oregon State. While there, I did some volunteer teaching in local middle schools, and loved the students’ enthusiasm for learning. Teaching in the classroom was the first time I had found a job that truly felt like my calling. I got my teaching license so I could help focus on hands-on learning in the classroom.
Question 2: What you do to bring the latest results into the classroom?
To remain current and bring the latest science into the classroom, I mainly rely on AAAS's Science journal. I usually pick 3-5 “News” or “Insight” articles a year, and write scaffolding questions for the article to help walk my students through them. I've also worked with a number of professors to help adapt their research into a classroom-based experiment that my students can do.
Question 3: What are you most proud of in your work?
Two years ago, my classroom and a few others across the country worked with Scripps, Oregon State, and other universities to learn about TTIDE (Tasman Tidal Dissipation Experiment) as it occurred. My students contacted a professor or graduate student via email before the ship left port and asked them about their part of the research project, and we were able to get a Skype tour of the onboard facilities. As the ship left port and performed the experiment, and after it was over, we were able to keep in contact with them to learn about what problems came up, how they overcame them, and what they learned. I am the most proud of it because my students were able to learn how to overcome adversity, and what doing science is really all about, by talking about it with researchers they otherwise never would have been able to meet.
Question 4: What topic do you find most difficult for students? How do you teach it?
The topic that is the hardest for students is integrating math and language arts into the science curriculum. I think this is the case because most middle-school students either don't like math or writing, don't like the idea of blending classes together (i.e., using English and Math in classes that aren't those classes), or a combination of the two. The way that I try to engage them with it is to incorporate the math and writing into the hands-on labs that they do, so they can see why it is important for analyzing and explaining your results.
Question 5: In three words, what would your students say they learned from you?
Science is FUN!
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