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Faculty Q & A with Science Teacher Vanilla Macias-Rodriguez

Authored By: 
James Vescovi, English Teacher

In love with science since childhood, Vanilla Macias-Rodriguez had plans to become a pediatrician. In college, however, she realized she was too tender-hearted to work with sick children. Instead, she decided to bring her love of science to young minds. After earning a B.A. in Biology with a double minor in Chemistry and Speech Communications at Texas A&M University, she taught in her native Texas before relocating to New York with her husband.

 

Some students consider science class boring. How do you make it interesting?

Fight the stereotype! I try to teach the major concepts with real world applications. When my students leave class at the end of the year, it is my hope that they will never look at the world the same way. While studying electron emission spectra, we discuss the science behind fireworks. They know that the element strontium makes a beautiful red color and that hot pink is thanks to a little lithium. Tada! Spectroscopy!

What other real-life applications do you teach?

When we study percent composition, we do a true chemical analysis of a compound, and then we analyze the percent composition of Oreos and Double Stuf Oreos and make a comparison. Did you know Double Stuf Oreos are not actually double stuffed? My students do. Not only are they doing calculations and determining percent error (which is often high in this lab, as the creme tends to end up on their tongues and never makes it to the electronic balance) but they are also becoming informed consumers. Who says you'll never use chemistry in real life?

Good start. What other ways do you keep students interested?

There's always frog dissection. Because Beekman classes are so small, everyone gets a frog and I am able to guide each student through the process. Even the squeamish and the sensitive students find themselves gaining an appreciation for how amazing our human body systems truly are. There are some great films that reinforce Ecology topics like March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth, Cool It, Medicine Man with Sean Connery, and the Planet Earth series. It's such a bonus to be able to show students animals and plants of every ecosystem since field trips to the Arctic Tundra might be a little unreasonable—although I did take a group of nine students to the Galápagos Islands a couple of years ago.

 

The study of Ecology has become very political. How do you teach it?

The same way I teach evolution. It is not my place to tell students what they should believe, nor do I feel it is my place to sway their opinions. My job is to present the information and allow the student to make informed decisions. Thanks to media coverage, many students walk in to the classroom believing climate change will destroy the world in their lifetime. I feel it's important that students understand that much of the foreboding climate data are predictions. The models that are being used to predict Earth conditions 15 years from now and the ones we use to predict the weather are very similar. The ten-day forecast is often inaccurate. They must also understand that we are evolved beings with an amazing ability to adapt to changes. We have been doing this for centuries.

How do you keep the subject fresh for yourself year in and year out?

I attend conferences, I scour the Internet and I'm always in science mode. This year, I'm going to be the experiment. During the summer, my husband and I had a genetic analysis done by the 23andMe company. The students will get to see my actual results and predict the traits my hypothetical children would express.


 

Any final thoughts?

I've been teaching for 14 years and I'm still in love with science. Advancements in science and technology have made it easier to draw more students into the scientific world. This is so important because even if they don't go on to pursue careers in science, they'll use its principles in their every day lives.