Stephen Radice is a multi-award winning chemistry teacher from Brooklyn, New York. For the past 26 of his 29 years of teaching, he has made chemistry accessible and brought it to life for every level of student at Edward R. Murrow High School. His wife, Kathy, also teaches chemistry at Murrow High School and collaborates with Stephen when planning lessons. It is clear that his fellow staff, chemistry colleagues around the country and most importantly, his students, admire him. Stephen was presented the Conant Award for 2013. Read the interview below and you will be inspired by his love for his career and his students. You can also read the article announcing his award in Chemical & Engineering News.
Deanna Cullen (DC): The Conant Award is the highest award that a high school chemistry teacher can receive. What does winning this award mean to you, both personally and professionally?
Stephen Radice (SR): I received the phone call from the President of the American Chemical Society in June of 2012 and was told that I was to be given the prestigious Conant Award. After the call I cried. Personally this was one of the most rewarding and humbling moments in my life. It represented an achievement of my life’s work. For over a quarter of a century I have dedicated my efforts to bring education to my students in a fun and engaging manner. It was a wonderful feeling to know that others have seen the love and passion that I have for education. It was equally important that former students contacted me upon hearing about the award to congratulate me.
Professionally this award has led me to give talks at the National ACS meeting as the keynote speaker, as well as at chemistry club meetings in New York and two presentations at my local school. (One which had the entire school faculty present: over 250 people). At these meetings I focus on inspiring educators with the teaching philosophy: “Have fun, challenge, and engage students. Love your subject (chemistry) and share this passion with your students”. In addition, due to the award I was offered and accepted a position to be an advisory board member of the Chemistry Teacher Association in January 2013.
DC: What are your thoughts about the newly announced ACS association for high school chemistry teachers (AACT)?
SR: I am very excited about the formation of a National Chemistry teachers Association. It is hard to believe that one was not already in existence. I so strongly believe in this, that when I was asked to join the ACS advisory board to create an organization for high school teachers I eagerly accepted. It has been my experience that a teacher’s best friend is fellow teachers. We can learn so much from sharing our experiences with others and this in turn will help student achievement. I have been a member of the local Chemistry Teachers Club of New York and found that to be quite helpful. Having a national forum where teachers from the entire country can get help or share a good teaching technique is a very exciting and worthwhile endeavor.
DC: Who are the people that influenced your choice of a career in chemistry education and continue to sustain your enthusiasm?
SR: Growing up in Brooklyn New York, I feel that my biggest influences were my family (mom, dad, brother and sister) and my math and science teachers. My Mother and Father always stressed the importance of school and doing what is right. When I came home from school, mom would insist that all homework be done before we could go and play. My siblings were older than me, I saw my brother go to Columbia University and Major in Pharmacy, my sister would major in Nursing. My father told stories of how he went to Brooklyn Technical High School (a science school for gifted and talented in science) and learned and taught me ideas about electricity, cathode ray tubes and how to fix televisions. My mother could add numbers in her head as good as a current day calculator (of course we did not have calculators back then) and taught me how to measure while cooking using a measuring cup when I was a little boy. There were always chemistry books, organic models, mortars and pestles in the home as well as a small garden. I guess my home life had a lot of science.
As far as teachers are concerned my high School chemistry Teacher: Ivan Doctor truly inspired me. He was always bringing in demonstrations and using analogies. I can still see him teaching me a lesson on reaction rates and using trucks going uphill as the "rate determining step". I still use that today in my classes. He made me "Love Chemistry". I kept in touch with him and he recently retired. Without him I may not have seen the joy in chemistry.
Those people influenced me in my career choice. The students have influenced me in my career path. They consistently renew my passion to teach. Seeing their eyes light up from demonstrations I have done many times before (but new to them) inspire me to continue my journey as an educator. I also wish to thank my colleagues from the New York Chemistry Teachers Club who have given me countless teaching pointers and assistance with ideas for demonstrations and laboratories.
Today my wife and 2 children inspire me daily to do the best job I possibly can. My wife Kathy, an excellent chemistry teacher herself, and I constantly brainstorm to improve our lessons. Just this year, we decided to use a plasma ball for our atomic structure lessons. My children (6 and 8 year olds) remind me that we all have things to learn. They also remind me of the great responsibility we as adults/teachers have to our children (both familiar and students at school). We must provide the best education and opportunities for all our children in our community.
DC: Why were you nominated?
SR: I believe I was nominated due to the wonderful success of my students. They are not all chemists and doctors but they have gone on to become productive members of society. I have taught all levels of students from special education to college level. My first year teaching was a self-contained science class. I recently was at my supermarket and met my student from 1985, he called my name. He is now working as a bagger and cart collector. I am as happy for him as I am my students who are doctors, pharmacists and lawyers.
DC: Some people view teaching as an easy job—no personal sacrifice involved, using the same lesson plans every year, etc. How do you counter that view?
SR: I can honestly say that my teaching technique is constantly evolving. To be an excellent teacher, one needs to know his or her audience. The lessons we used last year are not the same ones we use this year. Some of the content of chemistry may be the same but the motivational and educational tools constantly change. My lessons are constantly updated and revised. For example, I no longer talk about Gilligan’s Island with my students for none of them heard of it. For example, today I use a Beyonce song (Irreplaceable- for equilibrium). Students today are different: they are of the digital age. Today we use the Interactive white boards to instantly show pictures of elements, shapes of orbitals and videos of shapes of molecules. We use Power Points to play “chemistry jeopardy”. The job of a teacher is constantly evolving. As far as sacrifice, some people think teaching is a 7 hour a day job for 10 months. As far as I am concerned I find teaching to be a 7 day a week 365 day a year job. During the school year, weekends and evenings are packed with grading laboratories (I have 180 labs a week to grade), writing lessons and grading homework and papers. During the summer I constantly look for ways to improve my craft, from attending professional development to working on new motivations.
DC: Do you have a favorite quotation?
SR: I have Three. The first two are from Albert Einstein: "It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge." And, "Creativity is intelligence having fun." Notice that both include joy and fun: That is what we as teachers must create to truly inspire. There is another saying: “A ship in the harbor is safe--but that is not what ships are built for.” I love this for it emphasizes the fear of students for science. Many want to play it safe and do not want to venture into what they perceive as hard sciences. My job is to show them to take a chance and they can achieve their potential.
DC: Please share your teaching philosophy.
SR: My teaching philosophy is best summarized by what is on my award plaque, "In an enjoyable, enthusiastic, and passionate manner he has inspired both students and colleagues alike to reach their potential."
In summary: Have fun with your students, they will enjoy your class and learn Teachers must make chemistry real, fun, exciting and challenging.
DC: How do you make chemistry “come alive” for your students?
SR: First of all, we do a demo a day to illustrate common chemistry principles. For example we expand an “empty” balloon in a vacuum pump for an illustration of Boyles Law. I also relate chemistry to everyday household chemicals. In a lesson on Ionic compounds we describe how magnesium oxide is in skin cream and Zinc oxide is in sunscreen.
Secondly, I bring my students each year to meet a famous Nobel Laureate in chemistry or famous scientist. The students get to meet, talk, shake hands and take photographs with the scientist. This activity helps students realize that chemistry is not just a subject but a career. It also shows that chemists do meaningful work to help society. Hopefully the students will be inspired to do the same.
Radice and his students with 2005 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Richard R. Schrock. (Stephen is in the center of the group picture.)
Thirdly, I bring my students to NYU-Polytechnic University to do Laboratory. Students do college level laboratories WITH college professors. Students see that professors can be helpful and not intimidating. Hopefully this will encourage more students to take college chemistry.
Students with professors at NYU-Poly