Chris Kennedy, a veteran chemistry at Hiram High School in Hiram, Ga., is the first winner of the AAAS Leadership in Science Education Prize for High School Teachers. The annual prize of $1,000 recognizes a high school teacher who has developed an innovative and effective classroom strategy, activity, or program that contributes to the AAAS goal of advancing science education.
Kennedy’s award-winning activity was a lab on electron configurations in the periodic table. Working in small groups, his students built their own full-color periodic tables from a simple list of 56 elements. The lesson is an “old favorite” that Kennedy revised to meet new state standards for high school science courses, which are based in part on AAAS’s Project 2061′s Benchmarks for Science Literacy.
Kennedy knew he had a successful lab on his hands when he found students debating electron configurations in the hallway after class. And for the first time in 12 years, none of his 95 students missed the four questions related to electron configurations on their semester exam.
“Many of our students are used to doing concrete activities in school, so this was a little more challenging,” Kennedy said. “This is one of the first times they’ve had to deal with abstract concepts, since we’re talking about these atoms and molecules that they can’t see.”
The electron configuration lab is one of Kennedy’s inquiry-based lessons that encourage students to solve problems and come up with their own questions as they explore a scientific topic. Kennedy first encountered the approach as a mid-career teacher, “but there’s not a lot of stuff out there for high school chemistry, not like a recipe book out there to do more inquiry in my classroom.” Despite this, he forged ahead, and now spends part of each year training science teachers in inquiry-based learning.
In fact, Kennedy may put the prize money toward new software or a digital projector and “invest in a little technology for these presentations,” he said. Along with his state training, Kennedy regularly participates in national and regional teaching workshops sponsored by the National Science Teachers Association.
Kennedy said the prize was “a bit of a shock, and humbling too, to think of the number of people out there teaching and doing absolutely wonderful things in their classrooms.”
“Given the enormous challenges facing science educators today, it is especially gratifying to know that AAAS is now able to recognize the efforts of talented individuals like Mr. Kennedy with this new prize,” said Jo Ellen Roseman, director of Project 2061, AAAS’s science literacy initiative.
In her letter nominating Kennedy, Paulding County Schools science coordinator Dawn Hudson praised his work with other teachers. “He has burned copies of discs with his labs, lesson and unit plans, and other teaching tips—one per chemistry teacher in our district,” she said. Many teachers in the district are trying Kennedy’s techniques “because they see the impact in Chris’s classroom as a result,” Hudson added.
One of the biggest challenges in teaching high school students “is sometimes convincing them that they can do the science, and that they’re going to make it through the science. My department chair calls it the ‘buy-in,’” Kennedy quipped.
Marissa Matthews, a Hiram senior who took chemistry with Kennedy last year, counts herself among the convinced. “I actually like science now that I’ve had his class,” she said. “It made it easier to learn because you’re actually doing stuff. You’re doing it yourself.”
The annual teaching award, supported by an AAAS donor, may be increased if other donors wish to contribute to the prize. For more information on donating to this or other AAAS programs, visit the AAAS “Make a Gift” Web site or contact the AAAS Development Office at (202) 326-6636.
Get more information on the AAAS Leadership in Science Education Prize for High School Teachers.