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Woodrow Wilson High School students in Camden, N.J., see a rich orange flame in a chemistry lab that digs into atomic structure of elements.
Woodrow Wilson High School students in Camden, N.J., see a rich orange flame in a chemistry lab that digs into atomic structure of elements. Credit: Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report

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CAMDEN, N.J. — Lithium, the element, burns red. The flame for sodium is a strong orange. With potassium, it’s pink.

Before he did a flame test in his chemistry class at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, N.J., 16-year-old Naysaan Benson thought fire only had two colors – orange and red. The experiment surprised him.

“There was green, red, orange, yellow,” Benson said. Now he understands how fireworks get their color.

Benson’s classmate, Terrell Mears-Thomas, marveled over the different shades of orange he identified across elements – in salt form – that were part of the flame test. Some elements burned in similar colors, he said, but not exactly the same.

After class, he brainstormed real-world applications for this newfound knowledge. Wouldn’t it be cool, he wondered, if he could have a bonfire and make it burn in different colors?

Erika Leak, the class’s chemistry teacher, said the day’s lesson went deeper into the idea of atomic structure. Elements in an “excited state” are unstable, and their electrons that had previously absorbed energy release it on the way back to a stable “ground state.” That energy is sometimes released in the form of light, and the color of the light is specific to the element in question.

The experiment, Leak said, gives her and her students a reference point in follow-up lessons about atomic structure and the behavior of electrons.

“I wanted them to put that experience to a concept that’s actually pretty dense,” Leak said.

Leak is new to chemistry herself and has more empathy for what students might struggle to understand than someone who has made a career out of science. She spent the first part of her career teaching English, making the transition through an alternative certification program designed to alleviate the shortage of science teachers. The New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning trains physics and chemistry teachers based on the belief that it is harder to train people to be good teachers than it is to train good teachers to lead science classrooms.

The program recruits mid-career teachers who have already proven themselves in the classroom, giving them a crash course in the new subject area. Teachers take the class they’ll eventually teach over the summer and then get two semesters of “field experience,” where they teach it with NJCTL support while taking additional coursework. The last step is to take the state-recognized test for official approval to teach the subject.

NJCTL has graduated 50 chemistry teachers and 217 physics teachers since 2010.

The Camden City Schools’ partnership with the NJCTL has increased the number of science teachers in the district, meaning more students have access to the courses. Another benefit: the program has brought more female science teachers and science teachers of color to the classroom. Leak, a black woman, says she finds being able to stand at the front of a chemistry classroom in a school that is entirely black and Latino means something.

In a recent Powerpoint, Leak showed a slide full of scientists’ pictures and asked students what they all had in common. Each class said quickly that they were all white. One student pointed out that they were all men.

“I think that’s one of the things that turned me off when I was a kid,” Leak said. “I thought science is all white men with crazy hair.”

Now she can make sure her students don’t get the same impression.

Robert Goodman, executive director of the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning, is particularly proud of his program’s track record with diversity. About one-third of the physics and chemistry teachers the program trains are black or Latino, “which compares to close to zero percent for conventional teacher prep programs,” he said.

NJCTL is changing the face of physics and chemistry teachers in New Jersey (and elsewhere – its coursework is now offered online). That’s the first step. Their long-term hope, of course, is that these teachers help change the face of the future scientist workforce, too.

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