Science teacher honored for passion, technique

Sunday Times Newspapers

ALLEN PARK – For an Allen Park High School chemistry teacher, a career change has brought true happiness – and accolades.

Mary Jordan-McMaster was chosen as the winner of the 2011 Michigan Science Teachers Association’s High School Teacher of the Year Award. The award honors teachers who demonstrate innovative teaching strategies and a passion for science and teaching.

Jordan-McMaster, who has taught at the school for 15 years, said she is lucky to have found a career that combines her dual passions of science and teaching, although she initially hoped to explore her love of chemistry in the laboratory rather than the classroom.

“I didn’t want to be a teacher,” she said. “I was interested in becoming a research chemist. But my senior year of college, I did some chemistry research and I realized it’s not what I wanted to do.”

After graduating from Wayne State University, Jordan-McMaster decided to try her hand at teaching, and went on to earn a master of arts in teaching from the university.

“It was a serendipitous event,” Jordan-McMaster said. “I’m very passionate about chemistry and teaching so I’m lucky to get to go to a job I love every day.”

Principal Janet Wasko said Jordan-McMaster’s passion for her job is evident in her hands-on approach to her classroom.

“Mrs. McMaster is able to take difficult scientific concepts and make them understandable to her students,” Wasko said. “She uses hands-on activities to bring science to life and involves the students in discovery activities.”

To illustrate decomposition reaction, in which a substance breaks down into more simple parts, Jordan-McMaster had her students act out a couple’s break-up while she plays the J. Geils Band’s “Love Stinks.”

To judge how her students grasp a concept, she sometimes uses a “snowball quiz,” in which students anonymously fill out a three-problem quiz and then have a “snowball fight” with the crumpled forms. Each student then grabs a “snowball” and reports the answers, so Jordan-McMaster knows which percentage of students have it correct. That way, she said, students can know where they stand without failing a quiz.

Jordan-McMaster also has helped institute a program in the district to help smooth the transition to required chemistry and physical science classes when state graduation requirements changed three years ago. She helped create an online program resource for the district’s teachers and hosted summer camps for teachers to learn about the project.

Jordan-McMaster said getting her hands dirty is her favorite part of teaching and of chemistry.

“I love getting in there and getting dirty and mixing things up and showing the kids what happens,” she said. “I love bringing a subject matter I love to others.”