When students call, Smith profs step in to teach NHS AP biology

Last modified: Wednesday, November 19, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — Smith College biology professor Robert L. Dorit can make a comparison between DNA replication and text messaging: The faster it’s done, the more room for error.

This is how Dorit explained to a class of 16 focused Northampton High School students why viruses can spread so quickly in the human body. As a virus replicates imperfectly, it changes shape, making it harder for the body to recognize and fight.

“The faster those proteins change shape, the better the virus can elude the body,” Dorit said after class one day last week.

After an unexpected vacancy in the science department at the start of the semester left the Advanced Placement biology class taught by a substitute teacher, Dorit and some colleagues stepped up to ensure that the students’ enthusiasm for the subject did not fall by the wayside.

Advanced Placement classes offer students an opportunity to earn college credit if they score high enough on an exam at the end of the school year. Junior Devon Barry said that she and the other students were disappointed that they had a substitute teacher — and wanted a way to keep up the academic rigor.

“All of us had signed up for an AP biology course, and you expect a really intense course that is going to prepare you for the AP exam,” said Barry, 16. “We were like, we really need some help as soon as we can get it to get us on track.”

The arrangement with the Smith College faculty came about after Barry’s father, Sean, a medical writer, reached out to an acquaintance at the college after he learned that the class was without a permanent teacher. He recalled that he was inspired in high school by an AP biology class, and wanted his daughter and her classmates to have a similar experience.

“Mostly, I’m just a passionate nerd when it comes to the sciences,” Sean Barry said. “I think when kids get that fire for something, there’s no knowing where they’ll go.”

Dorit lined up some help. Sharing the teaching load with him are Smith College professors Stylianos P. Scordilis, Robert B. Merritt, assistant professor Nathan Derr and instructors Lou Ann Bierwert and Denise Lello.

All are volunteering their time to teach the class. Since Oct. 14, they have taken turns coming to the school to lead the 85-minute class five days a week while school officials worked on finding a permanent solution.

Matthew Kunze, a science teacher in the Boston area who has also taught AP biology at Amherst Regional High School, has been hired to fill the vacancy and began that role Monday.

In the weeks before the Smith College professors stepped in, the students had worked under the supervision of a substitute teacher on worksheets and group presentations. Students said the college-level lectures were a refreshing departure from their textbooks.

Devon Barry said she enjoyed learning about current research in addition to theories that have already been established. She recalled one lecture in which Scordilis shared a video that suggested a new understanding of mitochondrial fusion, and told the class that they would not find that idea on the advanced placement test because it is still being researched.

“I personally like it more than I would like AP bio, actually,” she said. “It gives us kind of a sense of the contemporary field of biology and what’s going on in the real world.”

Senior Jonah Herzog-Arbeitman, 17, agreed. He said his favorite lessons have included one by Dorit on the different ways life can be categorized and one by Scordilis on the rate at which enzymes can catalyze reactions.

“It’s really great to have these great college-level lectures be at our high school,” Herzog-Arbeitman said.

Valuable resource

Northampton High School Associate Principal Christopher Brennan worked with Dorit to coordinate arrangements. He said Smith College has long been a valuable resource to the high school. He noted that for several years, juniors and seniors with grade point averages of 3.4 or higher have challenged themselves by taking classes at Smith.

The professors’ willingness to pitch in to fill the temporary vacancy was immensely helpful, he noted. Had they not stepped in to keep up the pace of the class, he said, some students might have been discouraged from taking the advanced placement test at the end of the year.

“It did more than just fill in a space,” Brennan said. “They’re actually invaluable in many ways.”

In class last week, Dorit animatedly delivered the lecture on DNA replication while the students listened intently. He made sure everyone had their questions answered before moving onto a different section, and made sure to call on as many students as possible. When one female student began a question by saying that she knew it was a “stupid question,” Dorit told her never to undermine herself like that.

He noted that the faculty members are not teaching according to the Advanced Placement test preparation curriculum, but are more focused on sharing their expertise as a way to keep the students’ interest alive while they await their new teacher.

Before he and his colleagues came in, he said, the class had continued to study diligently while under the supervision of substitute teachers. Had he been in a similar situation in the 12th grade, sitting quietly and taking notes from the textbook is the last thing he would have done, he said with a laugh.

“I was really impressed with just the commitment of the kids,” Dorit said.

He said he hopes to somehow continue the relationship with the school, one idea being to have Smith faculty members come back periodically to lecture on current research.

“I am going to miss the kids and the class,” he said. “It’s been really fun.”

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at gmangiaratti@gazettenet.com.


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