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Excellence in Teaching and Life: Teacher Jan Coonrod Finalist for Presidential Award for Excellence

O’Dowd chemistry teacher Jan Coonrod has been a member of the O’Dowd community since 2009. This October, she was honored at the 2019 California Science Teachers Association (CSTA) conference as a California state finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST). Jan and two other California finalists were honored by the CSTA at a luncheon held October 19th in San Jose. Jan’s dedication to her students and profession is an inspiration.


What does it take to garner such honors? Coonrod is a contributing writer of a chemistry textbook used widely, including at O’Dowd. She worked alongside Associate Vice Provost for the Faculty and Professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, Angelica Stacy to write the book. Notably, the Living by Chemistry textbook also makes a cameo appearance with Peter Parker in the movie Spiderman Homecoming. More importantly, Coonrod’s passion and gift for teaching chemistry is palpable. We asked her about what drives her to stay so ignited in her work.

Why is learning chemistry important, particularly today? It could be argued that our sustained existence is more dependent on chemistry than any other scientific discipline. Understanding basic chemical principals prepares students to be informed citizens of this planet and better able to make decisions regarding their health, the environment, energy use, pharmaceuticals, and so on. We really need an informed populace with the different dilemmas facing us—the depleting of the earth and changes that are coming as a result. Chemistry relates to every part of living. Our bodies are little chemical factories. Everything that’s alive is about chemistry. I try to bring the life science aspect into the teaching and learning. Just think, everything we make and use are related to chemistry. And the solutions to the issues facing us, I believe, can be led through chemistry as well. Solutions to questions including How do you deal with too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?


Was chemistry always your passion? No. I tried to stay away from it as long as I could. My father was a chemistry professor at Cal. There’s a building named after him on campus. He cast a very long shadow. And opportunities for women were quite limited when I was young. For example, there were no female graduate students in my father’s lab. So, I earned my undergraduate degree in psychology, and later my teaching credential. I earned a Master’s degree in art therapy and worked as a psychotherapist. And I’ve found that having an appreciation for the human condition has actually made me a much stronger teacher. I found my way to chemistry eventually. I spent 12 years as an academic researcher at UC Berkeley before coming to O’Dowd.


Why has O’Dowd been your home for so many years? Students and teachers have warmth and caring relationships here. When I started, I noticed how easily students say hello and thank you with teachers. I get fist bumps and hugs. That’s some of it. I think the administration works very hard to take care of the students and to listen to their needs. Also, at O’Dowd students learn to be accountable for their work and actions. And the administration trusts its teachers to create their curriculum. This gives me creative freedom.


Who was a teacher you admired greatly and why? I would say Prof. Stacy, with whom I co-wrote the textbook, was a remarkable teacher and mentor. She taught me so much about collaboration. And a good collaborative environment is hard to find in the workplace. She also taught me the value of being brave enough to ask what seem like stupid questions. When I was younger, there was also Miss Rathert, my high school English teacher. She was really good at playing devil’s advocate and taught me how to support my ideas. She taught us about articulating our understanding and reasoning on a topic. She was quite inspiring. I was really shy as a student and she helped my confidence grow.


And what kind of teacher do you aim to be? Today in my own teaching I try to inject a positive vibe, a sense of joy. To keep learning interesting and fun. When we’re little we love to learn but then something happens to extinguish that. So I try to cultivate a love of learning in my teaching. How? I think it’s a combination of being genuine and genuinely liking the students, being open-minded about learning and learning styles, and modeling a sense of wonder and delight regarding the subject matter. It’s so important to be kind. There’s a little bit of performance art as well. I also try to create a safe space for people to make mistakes and have wrong answers. Understanding a concept often starts with misconception and builds from there.


What’s the most important life lesson you teach students through chemistry?

We’re teaching problem solving and critical thinking through chemistry, which is more important than ever today; and teaching students to base their reasoning on actual evidence. When technology gives instant answers and we accept those answers without questioning them it’s problematic. In chemistry, one of the first projects students have is creating a golden penny. Then I ask, “What evidence do you have that you did or did not make gold? What can we do to find out if we did make gold? What evidence can we gather?” We do this through student-centered, activity based learning. This class makes chemistry accessible to everyone rather than only the domain of high performers as it so often is. Everyone should have the opportunity to take chemistry, and, better yet, to have a positive experience while doing so.


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