Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

January 1, 2010

Life Science

Photos courtesy of Janice Crowley

Intro


Traveling around the country last fall during National Notifications, Milken Family Foundation Chairman Lowell Milken told thousands of students and teachers, "Virtually every successful person credits one or more great teachers with helping him or her get where they are."

Chad Cowan is one such successful person.

A young scientist with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Chad works at the forefront of stem cell research. In 2004, he and several colleagues created 17 new human embryonic stem cell colonies, an important development that may one day help find cures for diabetes, Parkinson's disease and a host of other illnesses.

In interviews with the media, Chad has acknowledged several teachers with helping him get where he is today. There was his English teacher and debate coach, who taught him how to communicate. There was a biology teacher, who taught him how to dissect. And then there was Milken Educator Janice Crowley (KS '97), who taught him to love science.

That love of science is something that Janice has inspired in countless students over nearly three decades of teaching. Not all have ended up at Harvard as Chad Cowan has, but several have entered science-related careers because of the passion for the subject that they inherited from her. And it is indeed an inheritance, for if her students love science, it's because she loves science, and not just within the confines of the classroom, but in the world all around us.

Of course, passion is only part of the formula for excellent teaching. Janice is also an expert pedagogue, and her creative, effective and often playful lessons include the rigorous discipline that scientific investigation requires. Her approach has helped many of her students achieve high academic levels, but for Janice, student achievement is not the only goal of teaching. It's also to get students excited about a subject, igniting the spark of scientific inquiry so that their desire to know will fuel their drive to learn.

Her teaching excellence has brought numerous professional accolades. In addition to the Milken Educator Award, which she received in 1997, she was recognized by the American Chemical Society (ACS) with an Outstanding Teaching Chemistry Award in in 2002. That same year, a research manuscript she submitted with her students was accepted for publication in the Journal of Chemical Education. And in 2005, Reader's Digest named Janice Crowley one of America's 100 Best.

What follows is the alchemy of a truly outstanding teacher.


Early Bloomer

It's perhaps no surprise that Janice became a great teacher. She had plenty of good examples from which to learn.

Her first and arguably most significant teachers were her parents. When Janice (née Mulvihill) was five years old, her family moved from Evanston, Illinois to Dallas, Texas. Due to the timing of the move, she missed enrolling in kindergarten, which made her parents concerned that she would fall behind in school.

So her father, an engineer, began teaching her himself at nights and on weekends.

From her father, Janice developed a love of math. She also watched as he fixed things around the house, and though she does not consider herself handy with tools, she learned not to be afraid of working with her hands and trying new things.

From her mother, who often "devoured" 10 books from the library each week, Janice developed a love of reading.

By the time she entered first grade, she was far ahead of her class. Proficient in basic math, she could even count change, something her classmates wouldn't learn until later.

One day, when Janice was in the second grade, she came home crying. She had been chastised by her teacher, not for being bad, but for being too good. She had competed in board races that day, in which students stand at the chalkboard and race each other to solve math problems. In a culture where girls were encouraged to defer to boys and never show interest in such allegedly masculine pursuits as math, little Janice did the unthinkable: she beat a boy.

Not only that—she beat the smartest boy in class.

Her parents were furious that her teacher had rebuked her for doing so well, but even after they complained, the teacher continued to discourage Janice. Every life experience is a lesson, even the negative ones—perhaps especially the negative ones—and what Janice learned from her second grade teacher was an example of the kind of person she did not want to become.

Many more positive teaching role models lay ahead in Janice's educational path. There was Mrs. Collum, her fourth-grade teacher, a Chinese woman who piqued Janice's interest in science by making it come alive.

There was her seventh-grade math teacher, Mr. Gray, an African-American gentleman who always addressed his students by their last names ("Miss Mulvihill..."), and whose explanations of math Janice found to be efficient, organized and lucid.

In ninth grade, Janice found herself assigned to Mr. Wilson's class for science. Everyone had told her, "Oh, you don't want that crazy Mr. Wilson," and she dreaded reporting to his classroom. But he soon became one of her favorite teachers. She loved the stories he told—stories about near-death experiences illustrating how science can save people's lives. Other students were often disturbed by these stories. Janice found them fascinating.

Then there was Mr. Adair, her eleventh-grade chemistry teacher, an ex-Jesuit priest who had his students conduct a chromatographic analysis of colored toilet paper to determine if there was any link between the red dye used in the product and cancer. It was a project that Janice would later echo in her own teaching career.


The Road to Teaching

Despite the influence of so many outstanding teachers in her life, Janice had no plans to be a teacher when she entered college. What she wanted to be was an art restorer.

The idea had been suggested to her by a university researcher for whom Janice did part-time work in high school. Hearing that she had just won a "Best in Show" art competition and knowing of her passion for science, he suggested that she combine her talents for a career in the glamorous and elite world of art restoration.

After studying chemistry and art at the University of Texas in Austin for two years, she transferred to the University of Texas in Arlington to study under a preeminent teacher of painting technique, Richard Shaffer. He gently informed her that as talented as she was, her artistic skills were not at the level required for the profession.

Discouraged but not defeated, Janice held on to her desire to find a career that would allow her to combine science and art. She didn't want to become what is known as a "bench chemist"—someone who sits in a lab all day working with chemicals. So she paid a visit to Southwestern Medical University in Dallas to explore its medical illustration program. But when she saw the kinds of things she would have to illustrate (Janice had always been squeamish about blood), she decided this was not the career for her either.

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As she thought about what kind of career she wanted to pursue next, Janice moved to Wichita, Kansas, where she worked as a restaurant manager for a year-and-a-half. A chance encounter led her to join the sales force at a telecommunications company, where she worked for 18 months, traveling frequently and becoming one of the top 20 salespeople in the company.

When she got married and discussed with her husband the prospect of having children, she realized she would not be able to maintain a sales job that had her traveling often for days at a time. Her husband asked if there was any other job that she had always wanted to pursue.

Though she had never seriously considered it as a career, a part of Janice had always wanted to be a teacher. She had enjoyed tutoring and substitute teaching while studying at UT Arlington. Even as a child, she would bring home old textbooks that her school no longer wanted and play teacher with her friends during the summer. She had also enjoyed tutoring her younger brother, helping him learn despite his challenging dyslexia.

Deciding to join the teaching profession, Janice compressed a two-year teacher education program at Wichita State University into a single year and received her certification. She didn't have long to wait for a teaching job—North High School in Wichita offered one to her.

And so Janice Crowley became what she seemed destined to be all her life: a teacher.


Science is Life

Science is not just an academic subject—it's a way of looking at life. Science is all around us, at all times, and the passkey into the world of scientific inquiry is simple curiosity about how things happen and why.

Asking questions about the world around us is how Janice gets her students excited about science. It's an educational approach that she learned from her own great teachers. Her ninth-grade science teacher, Mr. Wilson, once told his students that airlines did not allow their stewardesses to wear high or spiked heels on board an airplane. The reason, he told them, was that the pressure per unit area from the heels was so great that over time they could puncture a hole in the floor of the cabin, which would depressurize the cabin and cause the plane to go down.

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Janice doesn't know whether this is true or apocryphal, although she finds it interesting that her sister, a former stewardess, was not allowed to wear high or spiked heels on an airplane. But the subject came up again when Janice was applying for an apartment in Wichita, and the landlord had her sign an agreement that she would not wear high or spiked heels in the apartment, because they could put dents in the linoleum floor.

Pressure per unit area.

Science is all around us.

When Janice began her teaching career at North High School in Wichita, it was one of the lowest-achieving schools in the district, in one of the poorest areas of the city. It was exactly the kind of school where Janice wanted to teach.

"I wanted to be one of those people who could make a difference," she said.

In the beginning of her first year, when the new textbooks arrived, all the other teachers snatched them up, leaving Janice without enough books for her students. She didn't complain. She simply created her own lessons—the kind of lessons she had enjoyed as a student, igniting curiosity by relating science to the real world. Will a bowling ball sink or float in water?

She brought in a bowling ball and put it in a bucket of water. Sure enough, it floated. The students wanted to know why.

Before long, student achievement started to soar. People began to take notice when students from this typically low-achieving school began outperforming students at nearby private schools. Janice herself scored well as a teacher. By the end of that year, she became the first teacher in the district ever to receive a perfect evaluation in the first year of teaching.

Nine years of outstanding instruction followed at North High School. At the end of her tenth year, just after becoming vested in the public school system, Janice moved into the world of private education at a brand new campus, Independent High School. There she found that teaching private school came with its own set of challenges.

"In public schools," said Janice, "you have a larger number of students you have to reach, but you have support, such as paraprofessionals and special education teachers. In private schools, we still have to deal with special education, but we have to do it ourselves. I have to type up special tests, I have to administer tests separately for them. It's just as hard as teaching in public schools, but in a different way."

Two years after starting at Independent High School, Janice attended a schoolwide assembly where an organization called the Milken Family Foundation announced that it was presenting a surprise $25,000 Award to a teacher at the school. When the recipient's name was announced, Janice was so busy wondering who was going to get the Award that she didn't hear her name. Only when camera flashes began popping in her face did she realize what had happened.

"It was one of the most wonderful experiences I've had," she said. "Talk about an adrenaline rush that didn't stop for a year!"

Some might have taken a $25,000 Award as an occasion to rest on their laurels. But for Janice Crowley, it was an opportunity to embark on more grand educational adventures.


French Fries and Cancer

At the 1998 Milken Family Foundation National Education Conference, Janice Crowley heard Michael Milken speak about the progress that had been made in cancer research through the Prostate Cancer Foundation (then known as CaP CURE). When she later spoke to him about wanting to initiate a project with her students that would help advance cancer research, Mike suggested that she speak to Dr. Howard Soule, who at the time was CaP CURE's chief science officer.

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Around the same time, a parent in the Wichita area donated a gas chromatograph to Independent High School. The machine, when hooked up to a computer, separates compounds into elements for chemical analysis.

Janice began considering how she could use this device in her classroom, when she received an unexpected phone call from Dr. Soule. He connected her with Dr. David Heber, professor of medicine and the public health director at the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, and Dr. Heber's assistant Suzanne Henning. Learning that Janice had a gas chromatograph at her disposal, Dr. Heber and Ms. Henning provided her with various protocols involving the device that other researchers had used at UCLA.

What Janice and her students decided to investigate was the possible link between cancer and fatty foods such as French fries. Studies of women with breast cancer had indicated a high ratio of linoleic acid to linolenic acid in their bodies. Both substances are found in fatty foods. So Janice created a project for her advanced chemistry research class in which students would use the gas chromatograph to analyze levels of methyl linoleate and methyl linolenate in various French fry samples.

After teaching this project for two years at Independent High School, Janice Crowley moved again to another private school, Wichita Collegiate School (WCS), where she had the opportunity to custom-design the entire science program. The school had its own gas chromatograph, and Janice continued the French fry analysis project with her new students at WCS.

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Within a year, the students at WCS were ready to report their findings to the world. They began with a poster presentation to a group of medical doctors at the Kansas University Medical School. Impressed with the students' work, the doctors encouraged them to consider getting their research published.

Within the next several weeks, Janice and her students wrote and edited an article, which they submitted to the Journal of Chemical Education, a publication with rigorous standards for accepting manuscripts. With editorial guidance by a group of professional scientists, the article, titled "Classroom Research: GC Studies of Linoleic and Linolenic Fatty Acids Found in French Fries," was published in the July 2002 edition of the Journal of Chemical Education.

It was a triumphant experience for Janice and her students.

No longer were they simply high school students working on a science project. They were published scientists, a title that very few teenagers get to claim.

Just a few months later, Janice and her students found themselves in print once again—this time in an article for Popular Science. It was the first time they had appeared in a national magazine with a circulation of over one million readers. For Janice, it would not be the last.

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Janice (standing seventh from left) and her students at the Science Olympiad


The Science of Giving

In May 2005, Reader's Digest released an issue praising "America's 100 Best," from the best honors college in the country to the best all-around coach. The magazine named Janice Crowley its "Best Chemistry Inspiration."

It was the latest in a litany of honors for her achievements. It was also an accurate description of her work, for Janice has always been more than a teacher—she has been an inspirer.

She has been a giver as well. Although people do not become teachers for what they expect to get from the profession, but rather for what they feel they can give, Janice has received more than her share of rewards. And yet these rewards have come about because of her enormous generosity—of time, energy, spirit, knowledge, curiosity and passion for science.

When Janice was a student teacher, her class surprised her with a gift. Other student teachers received gifts from their pupils, but they were typically small and modest. Janice's students gave her an engraved leather briefcase. It was a testament to the high value they placed on what she had given them.

While she was teaching at North High School, one of Janice's students was a talented young man named Jose Cabrera. Janice had instilled in Jose such a love of chemistry that he decided to major in the subject in college. And like Janice, Jose was also a very talented artist.

One night, a few years later, she ran into Jose at a restaurant. She was surprised to find him waiting tables, since she knew he had earned a degree in chemistry. When she asked him why, he said he had turned down various science-related jobs because "I didn't want to be a bench chemist."

His answer triggered an old memory in Janice, and she got an idea. She told Jose about the medical illustration program at Southwestern Medical University in Dallas, which she had explored more than two decades earlier. She told him that she was going down to Dallas the next day to visit her siblings, and asked if he wanted to go with her.

On the way, Janice called the university on her cell phone and announced that she had a talented young Hispanic artist with a chemistry degree. Mentioning Jose's ethnicity was important, says Janice, because medical illustration programs are often interested in hiring more minorities.

Janice told the person on the phone, "You don't remember me, but I visited there 25 years ago." She then asked if they would give Jose a red carpet tour of their program. They did. Jose Cabrera is now a medical illustrator at Southwestern Medical University.

Janice says she is "surprised every day at how kind and how good people are to me." Perhaps it's not so surprising though, when you consider how kind and good she has been to others, simply by doing what she is passionate about: teaching science. It's hardly a scientific principle that when you give to others, they give back. But judging from the evidence of Janice Crowley's life, the hypothesis seems positively indisputable.

 


For more information, contact Janice Crowley at jpcrowley@cox.net.

 




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