Spotlight on BABEC teacher in residence – Alton Lee

For the average person, a “teacher” is someone who is restricted to a classroom, delivering knowledge in a structured format that is assessed through exams or activities. What is rarely seen is the work that happens outside the classroom, preparing lesson plans as well as adapting ideas and curriculum to meet learning goals. BABEC relies on a close partnership with teachers to advance our mission of inspiring all students to engage in science. It is because of this that this past summer, our first teacher-in-residence joined the BABEC team.

What exactly is a teacher-in-residence? Meet Alton Lee and learn more about how he is blazing the trail for this new position.
1) Tell us a little bit about yourself
I am starting my 12th year in the classroom in the Fall, and I currently work at Woodside High School near Redwood City – where I teach Biology and Chemistry.  I previously worked at Mission High School in San Francisco, where I taught Chemistry, Principles of Biotechnology, and Physics; and Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, where I taught Biology, Chemistry, and Environmental Science.

 My family and I immigrated to San Francisco when I was eight, and I have lived here ever since.  My bachelor’s and master’s degrees are both from UC Berkeley.  My bachelor’s degree was in Psychology & Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB) – although my slant towards MCB was more molecular. My master’s degree was in Education, and my initial teaching credential was only in chemistry – since, at the time, I did not think I would ever teach biology.

My first experience with BABEC was in 2006 as a student teacher in a chemistry classroom.  One of my teaching supervisors, who also worked for BABEC at the time, was doing a workshop on a new lab involving rainbow protein purification.  We started out with bacteria transformed with plasmids containing genes for different fluorescent proteins, and we would lyse the bacteria and isolate the proteins using an affinity chromatography column.  Perfect – my cup of tea.  I did the lab in the class I student-taught but thought that I would never do this lab (or another BABEC lab) with students again.   

That changed after about 6 months into my first job.  I was hired to teach chemistry and be part of the Health Academy.  There was no health-related content course connected to the academy.  A biotechnology course became a possibility – partly because there had been one at the school several years prior, and partly because there were schools teaching biotech courses elsewhere in the district.  That (re-)started a biotech course that continued for 7 years – outliving the Health Academy that was its impetus.

Teaching biotech changed me as an educator and a learner.  It forced me to learn biology that I ignored as an undergraduate; I was learning it so that I can help my students build connections they never thought existed.  It has helped me (re-)imagine what a 9th grade biology class can look like.  It helped me situate chemistry, physics, and environmental science within a high school science program.

 In my spare time, I volunteer, cook, and travel.  As of the end of August, I have visited 32 states and 9 countries.  

2) What is your role as a teacher in residence with BABEC? How do you interact with the rest of the team?
The team consults with me when they need a teacher’s perspective on an issue.  As we were streamlining the portable supply kits for San Mateo County BABEC teachers, I would either suggest changes to the portables or be asked my opinions about different changes.   It was all hands on deck when the entire BABEC team cleaned, serviced, rearranged, and restocked different components in the portables to get them ready for this year!The team also consulted me as they were making changes to different lab protocols, while I was working on rewriting BABEC curriculum and thinking long-term about what other curriculum materials will be of interest to teachers and students.

3) Why would working with an organization like BABEC be of interest to a high school science teacher?
I think that a teacher working for BABEC is, essentially, a mutualistic relationship.  As a consumer of BABEC’s reagents and curriculum materials, I have had my own opinions, optimizations, and customizations. BABEC, as curriculum gets worked on, needs feedback from different stakeholders – including teachers.  Ideally, teachers and BABEC staff foster a productive working relationship where teachers give feedback that results in iterative refinements to curriculum – which teachers turn around and use for their students.  Ultimately, students benefit – and not just my students, if I do my job right. 

4) What has been the most interesting experience you have had at BABEC so far?
Being consulted on multiple issues all at the same time as definitely kept my interest!  Being asked questions about portables, curriculum, and lab protocols all within one hour definitely mirrors my work in my classroom!

5) Any sage advice for future teachers in residence?
It’s about balancing needs of different stakeholders – and thinking big picture.  It’s about thinking beyond just my classroom, my students, my colleagues, my school.  It’s about envisioning the needs to students and teacher across multiple spectra, while balancing the realities of a nonprofit trying to make as broad of an impact on student learning as resources can allow.

Cristy Walcher-ChevilletSpotlight on BABEC teacher in residence – Alton Lee