by Erika Solberg
Among our new teachers at VAMPY this year are Colton Isaacs, who is teaching DNA & Genetics, and Debbie Brock, who is teaching Chemistry. Colton is near the beginning of his career while Debbie has decades of experience, but both of them have the imagination of a true scientist, a passion for education, and an appreciation of young people, a combination that suggests this summer could be the beginning of a long relationship with VAMPY.
Colton taught biology for five years at Warren Central High School in Bowling Green and will be taking on a new role at the school as a behavioral interventionist in the fall. He is also working on his Rank One educational certification at WKU. One of three secondary school finalists for the 2021 WKU College of Education and Behavioral Sciences’ Distinguished Educator Awards, he first connected with The Center in 2018 when he took Julia Roberts and Tracy Inman’s workshop on challenging advanced readers for the Warren County Schools through the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Discretionary Grant Program. In fact, on the first day on DNA & Genetics, Colton used a pre-assessment tool that Julia and Tracy introduced to him at that workshop. Among other things, he learned that the students were familiar with concepts such as the double helix, Punnett squares, and codons.
Debbie has been an educator for 28 years and taught 11th-grade Accelerated Chemistry for 17 years. She is now the academic program consultant for Kenton County Schools. Among her many honors is a 2017 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the nation’s highest honors for STEM teachers. She said it was “really exciting” to teach at VAMPY: “I’ve never had the opportunity to do so until recently because I’m now at the point in my life where I don’t have to worry about kids and summers.”
Colton is equally excited about being at camp: “I love the entire premise behind VAMPY — getting to interact with very bright kids, teaching them about something I love, and hopefully imparting that love into them as well.”
Colton will be tailoring his lesson plans to what the students want to learn: “Since the students told me they want to focus more on genetics, we’re going to get our heads wrapped around the basics of DNA and then move into both Mendelian and non-Mendelian genetics, looking at some of the variations to the rules.” He has a raft of labs planned, including bacterial transformation with jellyfish DNA, monohybrid and dihybrid crosses with Wisconsin fast plants, genetically modified corn, DNA modeling, a CRISPR lab where students will work with genomes, and an evolution lab where students will expose brine shrimp to different levels of salinity.
Debbie plans to give her student the equivalent of first-year high school chemistry in three weeks. She said, “I’m going to give them as much introduction to as many different topics as I can. We are starting with atomic structure because we need to have some basics, and then I will move into chemical equilibrium.”
On the first morning of class, she used “a little tube with strings on it to model the way that scientists have changed their ideas and their models of the atom.” Tuesday’s lab will serve to challenge the belief most students have, Debbie said, that “chemical reactions cannot be reversed — that they only go in one direction.” To introduce the concept, she will begin with the fascinating story of how the Hungarian chemist Georgy de Hevesy, working in Niels Bohr’s lab in 1940 Nazi Germany, saved the Nobel prizes of two Jewish scientists by exposing their medals to a chemical emulsifier that changed the gold to a chloride solution. Debbie explained, “When the Nazis raided the lab, they didn’t think anything about the bottle of orange liquid sitting on a shelf. After the war, he reversed the process, brought it back to gold, and sent the gold off to the Nobel committee so they could re-press it into medals.” [For more on this story, go to “Dissolve My Nobel Prize — Fast!”] In Debbie’s lab, student will work with copper rather than gold and will “change it into a compound, and then another compound, and then another compound, and then finally bring it back to the element.”
On the first day of DNA & Genetics, Colton laid the groundwork for the class in a sweet way. With the goal of introducing lab procedures and other basic skills, he had students measure the components of regular, Double-Stuff, and Mega-Stuff Oreos. The students entered their data into a chart on the board and for each type of cookie calculated the average of the mass of the whole cookie, the filling, and the wafer. They then made observations about their findings, noting among other things that the wafer mass increased as the amount of “stuff” increased and that the so-called Double Stuff did not actually have double the stuff.
Finally, Colton instructed the students to make a graph of the data. When he asked them what type of graph would be most appropriate, one student suggested a bar graph and another a line graph. Colton said he thought that a bar graph would work best, but that the student should “go ahead a try a line graph” to see if it would work too. This moment of encouraging a student to try out her idea is typical of Colton’s teaching style. “My favorite part of teaching,” he said, “is the interactions with young people, seeing how their minds work, getting to talk with them, and seeing things through their perspective.”
Debbie, who is also the parent of gifted children, has a similar perspective on teaching, especially teaching gifted students: “I love the wonder — when I see the wonder in their eyes, it excites me, and I love to do something weird for kids to look at and wonder about and ask questions about. And then we work to try to figure it out.”