RCDS students are still buzzing about the interactive laser demonstration that science teacher Tristan Young facilitated at two assemblies for the Lower School (Beginners – Grade 4) and Upper School (Grades 5-8) in February. A dynamic educator who is completing his fourth year at RCDS, Mr. Young recounts his remarkable path to RCDS and why it’s important to keep science interesting.
When did you know you wanted to become a science teacher?
I didn't think I was going to go into teaching until a good bit into my time in college. I was taking a lot of chemistry and biology classes and one of the things that struck me was how difficult it was to learn from my general chemistry teachers. One teacher was quite passionate about designing and teaching his course, but I now know his methods were, unbeknownst to him, counterproductive to learning. The next professor lectured dryly and struggled to answer questions. But the third teacher was interesting, engaged the class, and was easy to learn from. I wondered, 'why is this teacher so good?' A classmate mentioned he taught high school science and I realized; this is a skill.
Teaching is something you could practice. The chemistry teacher everyone wanted to learn from knew when to ask the class a question. He even knew how to modulate his voice to make the subject more interesting. That got me interested in teaching, and after my undergraduate degree, I got my teaching certificate from the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers.
Before RCDS, you traveled to schools around the country presenting educational science shows with Wondergy, Inc. How did you get started on that path?
It was literally an ad on Craigslist that said, “Do you like blowing stuff up and getting excited about science?” I thought it would be a good summer job. The company was growing, and it turned into a full-time national tour. It was ten shows a week, and we did a bunch of different shows on molecules or the physics of skateboarding, which were fantastic. Then we branched out into a laser science tour, and I helped develop shows about robots and drones. One thing I learned from doing all these shows is, it’s not about tricking kids into learning. Kids are interested in the show, they are interacting with the subject because they really want to know the answers.
How did your experience with Wondergy influence your current role as Upper School science teacher?
My philosophy about teaching is that the learning itself is fun. Enjoyment of the subject is key. And I always start my lessons the same way I started the shows, by asking questions. Fifth graders right now are genuinely excited about tectonic plates in our earth science study. We might spend an entire class asking questions and figuring out the answers together to figure out how something works.
A lot of times too, I’ll find an excuse to conduct an explosion during a demo or experiment because there is intrinsic value in getting students’ attention and having them think about science outside of class. It’s the same value you get out of giving kids homework. When a teacher gives homework it’s because they want proof that students are thinking about or practicing the topic outside of class. If our students go home and tell their parents, ‘We blew something up in science class,’ and that starts a discussion, it can be a seed to help students develop the side of science that’s fueled purely by curiosity.
How does getting middle schoolers excited about science now, translate as they move forward into high school?
One of my main jobs is to ensure that when our kids get to high school science they walk into the lab and they say, ‘Oh yeah science. I like science. Science is going to be cool.’ And if it ends up being a bit harder because every academic subject elevates in high school, they'll say, ‘It’s hard but science is still pretty cool.’ As opposed to, ‘Of course science is hard. It wasn't that fun in middle school.’ It reminds me of something Mr. Garside, a past RCDS 8th grade science teacher would tell the other science teachers, ‘Your job is to make it so that when they get to me, they still love science.’
The laser demonstration you facilitated in February for the Lower and Upper School assemblies was a huge hit. Can you tell us about it?
I was really happy to be able to adapt the laser show for RCDS students. These lasers can be dangerous if not handled correctly. An auditorium filled with middle schoolers are really interested in something that sounds dangerous and have a lot of questions about it.
I usually hold a balloon in the laser, let it pop, and say, ‘Well that's a good reason not to touch the laser.’ During the Upper School demo, the students wanted to know why the balloon popped, which led to a discussion about how color absorbs light, and the light turns into heat energy which melts the balloon. One student asked, ‘Well what if we use a white balloon with a black dot on it?’ I’ve probably done the laser show 500 times, and that was the first time an audience asked about a black dot. We tested the white balloon with a black dot and held it to the laser. What do you think happened?
It popped because the black is absorbing the light. It was a satisfying moment for the students and the demonstration turned out way better because the questions came from the audience, not me. You’d be surprised that kids of all ages can understand complex concepts if you just follow their questions.
How do you balance the formal parts of science with keeping students engaged and excited about it?
There are, indeed, formal tests and quizzes which elevate the challenge in the Upper School. At the same time, the older students are capable of handling more mature lab procedures. For example, they may learn how to safely use the hot plates and Bunsen burners which opens the door to lab activities involving flames. The fact that their work is more formal and the lab procedures are more mature doesn’t mean they’re any less fun!
Once a year or so I get the question, ‘Why do we need to learn this? When are we going to use it? I’m able to give them a truthful answer that’s from the heart. Science is part of everything whether you plan on being a professional athlete or an accountant. Everyone will grow up to vote and many of the topics you’ll be asked to vote on will involve science. I genuinely believe students in the class are learning things they genuinely need to know, and I’m their guide to getting there.
Tristan Young joined the RCDS faculty in 2019. He earned both his B.S. in Biological Sciences and M.A.T. in education from Rutgers University. When he is not teaching science to RCDS Upper School students, Mr. Young is working on a solar panel system to conserve energy at home. He is the grateful recipient of the famous science-themed necktie collection worn by Jeffrey Garside, the longtime RCDS science teacher who retired in 2022.
- A Word from Our Experts