Creating and Inspiring a Community of Learners
Chris Willems has a passion: relevant, engaging science learning. He expresses that passion in his high school classroom at the Metropolitan Business Academy in New Haven, Connecticut, where he uses “hard work, exploration, discovery, and excellence in science education” to draw students into the excitement of all aspects of science.
Metropolitan Business Academy is a magnet school that “integrates business concepts and skills into all areas of its college preparatory education.” Four academic pathways, including Allied Health and Science, focus students on specific career curricula. Willems teaches science, public health, and medical science technology courses.
“I believe science is extremely important to the overall education of students,” says Willems. “Learning about the natural world is deeply rewarding and opens doors to new ways of thinking.” He begins each course by creating a community of learners: the students establish an environment of respect through the development of guiding principles, or norms. “We are responsible, productive and hard working,” reads one student-generated principle. “We are prepared, focused, and participate.”
Once they have established positive, trusting relationships within the classroom, science learning begins. “I strongly value participation as well as emulation of actual scientific practices in all my science courses.” Students, encouraged by Willems to put effort into their work and think about the strategies they are using to solve problems, eventually design and carry out their own research over several months. “I have learned that I don’t have to evaluate to encourage. I want my students to do the work because they want to do the work.”
Willems has also connected his classes with science professionals in the area. They have had long-term partnerships with, for example, a neuroscientist, an engineer, physicists, doctors and physician’s assistants, natural history museum director, and even a professional dancer. This year, he and his class worked with a local dialysis unit, doing a series of lessons on diffusion, kidney function, obesity, and heart disease.
Willems, who did undergraduate work at the University of Connecticut and the University of Massachusetts and his graduate work at Lesley, has received previous awards. In 2009, he received the Connecticut Science Teachers Association Excellence in High School Science Teaching Award and in 2011, he was awarded the National Association of Biology Teachers Connecticut Outstanding Biology Teacher Award. He has also participated in many professional development activities and contributed to educational reform at the local, state, and national levels.
In 2014, Willems received the Robert E. Yager Foundation Excellence in Teaching Award for Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island at a ceremony at the National Science Teachers Association National Congress on Science Education in Washington, D.C. NSTA selected Willems for the award, which is in honor of science educator and researcher Dr. Robert Yager and recognizes “teachers of science who successfully use innovation and excellence in their classroom."
Of his time as a member of the first, year 2000, cohort of students in the newly-created Science in Education master’s degree, he said, “I found the experience to be challenging and very engaging. We had an opportunity to go deep with our experimentation and were challenged to properly represent our results in online forums. I really appreciated being able to do the work while teaching full time. The instructors were very knowledgeable and supportive while having high expectations of our diverse group.”
Willems, previously a teacher in Massachusetts, begins his twelfth year teaching in New Haven in fall of 2014.