The Oberlin Stories Project

On the level of teaching at Oberlin

Jessica Levine ’95

“Great teachers make a difference in our lives because they knew how to support us and how to push us. Educators at Oberlin do so in the most masterful way. They are both craftsman and scholars. They are activists and orators; passionate and inspirational.”

Jessica receives a huge, ceremonial check for $10,000

I remember the day that (now retired) Oberlin Professor Marty Ackerman marched into my Organic chemistry class and performed a chemiluminescent reaction. His enthusiasm was contagious; enlightening. He loved teaching science; he simply glowed. Right there, I decided on a Chemistry minor. He made chemistry fun and exciting--things turned color!! Color is one of the ways I inspire my 6th grade Science students to like Chemistry, too!

Great teachers make a difference in our lives because they knew how to support us and how to push us. Educators at Oberlin do so in the most masterful way. They are both craftsman and scholars. They are activists and orators; passionate and inspirational. As a teacher, I strive to emulate my Oberlin educators. I know that when you’re excited about a subject, students get excited about it.

As a recent recipient of an Amgen Award for Science Teaching Excellence I reflected on the integrated methodologies and contextual learning that were modeled at Oberlin in developing creative and engaging science curriculum for my students. A few fabulous examples: My genetics and microbiology professor Dick Levin spoke about winter term, as a time for “creative failure;” I couldn’t wait to stumble with that support. English and Environmental Studies professor T. Scott McMillin led us in a kinesthetic discussion of Emerson’s “Circles” by circling the [Tappan] square. Retired Biology Professor Doc David Miller nearly drove off the road scouting for mushrooms for a mycology field trip; when the butter hit the pan in the back in the lab, we had confirmation that the specimen we ID’ed was “edible and choice.” Booker Peak offered a chance to practice “Learning and Labor” for me to tutor Biology at Oberlin High School. David Orr continues to inspire me: I helped design the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, installed solar panels on the building years later, and connect with him regularly him in my work as an environmental educator. I will always be his student.

My integrated education at Oberlin prepared me to deliver a similar holistic view to my students in Seattle. Teaching the district adopted curriculum of physical science topics through the lens of sustainability means practicing what I preach, an ideal touted at Oberlin. As a National Board Certified Teacher and a 2008 King County Earth Hero at School I have been recognized for my work in sustainability education. As David Orr said, “All education is environmental education.” I do this naturally. I teach the law of conservation of matter and the first law of thermodynamics through meaningful and hands-on activities. Students in my class not only learn about the fundamentals of energy transformation, but also how to conserve and use alternative forms of energy. Students also learn about solubility, emphasizing how to conserve, clean, and protect water resources. Students track the life cycle of everyday products (a cradle to grave analysis) in order to make connections with materials science and ultimately impact their consumption choices. Additionally, students apply their knowledge of acids and bases to household hazardous products which culminates in a poster project designed to educate others about signal and hazard labels. I use resources from community partners to strengthen the curriculum, giving my students a deeper understanding of science concepts and a real-world context for how their choices affect the environment.

Citizen action is an important part of an Oberlin education. Teaching can be a mission driven career, a subversive activity (to quote Neil Postman). I’m not just preparing good scientists, I’m preparing global citizens. My students understand that Science is at the heart of contemporary society. They understand that they can ask questions, discover answers (and even more questions) and make a difference in their world. I teach because I believe in the power of young people to make a difference. “Think one person can change the world?” Oberlin’s 1990’s view book stated with a single image of the Earth from space, “So do we.”

I know that teaching called me. Being a teacher means being a fervent student of the world. Teaching is the way for me to share the best of what I have, and what I’ve been given. “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I couldn’t agree more with Sir Isaac Newton. Oberlin gave me models of excellent (science) educators; those who loved to teach as much as, or more than, the subjects they taught.