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Teacher lights science up with creativity

Biology Teacher of the Year brings research background into the classroom

Kentwood ー On a recent Thursday morning East Kentwood Freshman Campus ninth-grade biophysics teacher Wendy Johnson prepared to teach her class remotely via Zoom from her kitchen table.

As if the school bell had rung, her third-hour students promptly joined the session at 9:25 a.m. Even with some choosing not to turn on their video, Johnson greeted each student as their names popped up on screen. 

“Today we are close to wrapping up our unit and to answer our main question, ‘What happens to the fat we burn off during exercise?’” Johnson said excitedly. “We’re also conducting our candle experiment to determine what exercise and a candle burning have in common.”  

According to Johnson, both the human body and candles are made of carbon and hydrogen atoms that create molecular structures.The two are similar because candle wax melts into a liquid and vaporizes into a gas, much like how humans sweat while exercising and their sweat evaporates. 

After showing example videos, Johnson blew out a candle and relit the wick using just smoke from another candle.

“Epic,” student Khup Tuang typed into the chat.

Khup had suggested the candle-burning experiment to Johnson after hearing about it from another teacher. Johnson was happy to demonstrate.

“When Khup brought this idea to my attention, it really challenged me as a science teacher to try new experiments,” she said. “I love science and thinking of new ways to teach my students about the world around them and make science matter.”

Wendy Johnson demonstrates a candle burning experiment over Zoom with her third hour biophysics class

A Big Honor

It’s Johnson’s ability to harness curiosity from students that has earned her recognition as the 2020 Outstanding Biology Teacher Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. She was nominated by her colleagues from the association. 

In her class, things don’t follow a chapter-by-chapter traditional textbook curriculum, Johnson begins each unit in the new biophysics class with a driving question her students should be able to answer by the end.

“Coming into ninth grade from middle school, a lot of my ninth graders have misconceptions about science and don’t see it as being fun,” Johnson said. “In my classroom, I focus on teaching them science and to be curious when approaching topics on their own.” 

Her lessons incorporate a variety of videos and hands-on learning opportunities to answer questions and give responses. Students are encouraged to share their observations without needing to provide accurate explanations or have all the right answers. 

“I constructed this cellular respiration unit around how our bodies convert food into energy,” Johnson said. “This unit begins with a video clip from The Biggest Loser, where they highlight which contestant lost the biggest percentage of body fat.” 

This semester, Johnson started off teaching a unit on the coronavirus, comparing the United States’ rate of spread with other countries and the students used them to analyze rates of speed. 

“My big goal at the start of this year was to get my students asking why this information matters,” she said. “With the coronavirus, we need to understand how scientists are collecting data and using it to understand the disease’s evolution, which is different now than it was a few months ago.”

Curious Child Becomes Curious Scientist 

As a child, Johnson/s curiosity led her to discover her passion for science.

She dreamed of becoming a scientist, but while working towards her bachelor’s degree in biology at Hope College, she  shifted her focus from research to education. 

“During college, I worked with the Van Andel Institute to conduct scientific research and eventually realized I liked talking about the science more than the research,” Johnson said.

When Johnson decided to add a teaching certificate to her credentials during her junior year, she faced some doubt from professors. “It sounded like fun,” she said. “I was seen as this crazy person by my colleagues for trying to combine studying research and education, but now I can apply the things I learned to my classroom.”

After completing her undergraduate degree, Johnson taught at Lansing Caltholic High School by day and took classes at Michigan State University to earn her master’s in biology by night. She later earned her doctorate in ecology and evolution and curriculum and leadership, also from Michigan State. 

Fellow EK biophysics teacher Kristen Mayer met Johnson at MSU where they both completed their doctorates. “From the first day I met Wendy, we immediately hit it off,” Mayer said. “She digs into the K-12 science curriculum and is passionate about getting kids excited to learn science.”

Mayer and Johnson dreamed of getting jobs at the same school and now they teach in classrooms next door to each other. 

“Wendy cares so much about her students, and advocates for them as whole humans,” Mayer said. “We have a great science team at East Kentwood and she works to engage her students’ curiosity and makes sure they get the lab experience even with social distancing.”

Johnson first made her connection with Kentwood Public Schools while  recruiting schools to participate in a curriculum project. 

“I contacted someone at East Kentwood in the 10-12 building about wanting to visit the school to observe teachers teaching the curriculum and the students learning,” Johnson said. “After I completed my master’s, I knew without a doubt I wanted to go back and teach in Kentwood.” 

Impact on Students 

As a science teacher, Johnson believes in starting with questions and then guiding students to discovering answers. “Every question leads to 100 more and we will work on them until they’re answered,” she said.

She strives to make things work even while students are learning remotely. Johnson records videos of demonstrations and sends links of video clips to students learning from home. 

East Kentwood Principal Dominic Lowe said Johnson’s commitment to making science accessible for all students fuels her passion for teaching and learning. 

“When students come to ninth grade, many of them struggle with self-esteem or don’t feel they are smart enough to do challenging things,” Lowe said. “Wendy helps students to challenge their own perspectives of themselves and encourages them to be more than who they think they can be.”

Johnson’s students respond positively.

“I had one student who had not completed any of their work so far in the class tell me ‘I think I’ll pass this unit’ because he saw science as interesting and that he could do it,” Johnson said. 

“Students think science is all big words and labcoats but I’m here to bash all those misconceptions.”

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia and Kenowa Hills and is a roving reporter for Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN.  Read Alexis' full bio or email Alexis.

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