Teacher Preparation

TEACHER VOICE: A summer in a science lab taught me the importance of hands-on learning

Creating more ‘eureka moments’ in the classroom

hands-on learning

Growing up in Texas with Nigerian-born parents, I loved movies, comic books — and science.

In middle school, I participated in my first science fair. By high school, I never wanted to leave the lab.

Flash forward to the present. I’m a high school chemistry teacher with 22 years of experience. When I started introducing my students to competitions for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), it was because I wanted to share this love of inquiry.

It’s always exciting when a student truly masters a concept through hands-on learning. There’s nothing like that moment when something becomes clear because the student conducted the experiment that made it so.

That’s when learning is at its most satisfying and when teaching is at its most rewarding. These are the moments that turn students into passionate, lifelong learners.

Related: Oklahoma externship pays teachers for hands-on experience in engineering and science

After more than two decades in the classroom, though, even I admit that “eureka” moments don’t happen as often as one might hope.

That’s why I spent my summer at the U.S. Army Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in Champaign, Illinois, where I worked with scientists on water reclamation, figuring out ways to remove ammonia from wastewater.

This research will ultimately help scientists develop viable methods to remove ammonia from water waste so it can be recycled, reducing the amount of waste that is released into the environment.

How will this inform my teaching?

I had forgotten how exciting research is. Seeing the link between what I was doing in the lab and how it could improve the environment was exciting.

Related: Will new standards improve elementary science education?

Since I returned, I’ve gone back to the drawing board, infusing my classes with inquiry-based approaches to science at every turn.

My students are passionate learners — they always return from summer break excited to talk about their research questions, more than eager to jump back into the lab.

Now, not only can I say that I understand exactly how they feel, but I too can’t wait to jump back in with them.

Programs dedicated to STEM — opportunities to fall in love with science through experimentation — become more important every day, not only for students but also for teachers.

With the skills gap more prevalent than ever, we know how important it is to foster a pipeline of students who are excited to pursue STEM careers, and modeling passion is critical to that.

I cannot wait to bring what I’ve learned this summer, and the passion for science that I stoked, back into the classroom. I’m making sure I don’t take it for granted, for I know that being reminded of how it feels to be excited about learning is an experience that every teacher — and every student — can benefit from.

This story about teachers and STEM was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Obi Chukwu is a teacher at Pitt County Schools Early College High School in North Carolina.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.


Obi Chukwu

Obi Chukwu is a teacher at Pitt Early College High School in North Carolina. See Archive

Letters to the Editor

Send us your thoughts

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

No letters have been published at this time.