Anastasia Kolesnikova ’18 interviewed Middle School Science Department Chair Dr. Brett Merritt, who helped develop an Engineering and Invention unit at TASIS and was awarded the Khan-Page Master Teacher Award in 2014.
When did you start at TASIS?
I have two lives here at TASIS. I first started teaching at TASIS in 1998. However, after teaching for only two years my wife [Middle School EAL Teacher Dr. Kelly Merritt] and I returned to the U.S. to pursue work on post-graduate degrees. As it happens, we both eventually earned doctorate (Ph.D.) degrees. We returned to Switzerland in 2009 and I began teaching at TASIS again in 2010. I have been working in the TASIS Middle School ever since.
What classes do you teach?
At the moment, I teach only 7th grade science classes. However, over the past six years I have taught courses all all three levels of our Middle School (grades 6–8). The classes I teach from year-to-year depends on our middle school enrollment.
What else are you involved with at TASIS?
I am a dorm parent in Del Sole where this year we have 10th and 11th grade boys. I am the acting Science Department Chair in the Middle School. In the past, I have coached the boys football (soccer) team and supervised the Environmental Club, but I am no longer involved in either of these after-school activities. My wife and I also have ongoing educational research projects running in the Middle School. We are trying to learn more about the challenges that teachers and students experience when working together in science classes in which English is not the mother tongue of all the students.
Can you please describe your educational background and your career in education prior to TASIS?
I have a Ph.D. in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education from Michigan State University. I have a B.S. in Biology and I’ve also done master’s-level work in both environmental science and science education. Most of my professional life—about 20 years or so in total—has been dedicated to science education and science teacher education.
Before coming to TASIS, I taught science at both the secondary and university levels. While earning my Ph.D. at Michigan State University, I not only taught courses in the College of Education for pre-service science teachers, but I also co-taught science courses in the College of Natural Science for undergraduate students in the areas of cellular biology and organismal biology, and for graduate students in stream biomonitoring and aquatic entomology.
Can you briefly describe your teaching philosophy?
I wholeheartedly agree with my colleague, Dr. Chris Love, who suggested that “philosophy” might be too grand a word for what usually consists of a collection of personal belief statements about about teaching and learning. So, in place of a truly philosophical teaching philosophy, I would instead offer a belief statement.
I believe that the very best science educators find ways of promoting deep understanding in at least two senses. First, the best science teachers find ways to help their students understand the view of the world given to us by science—in other words, these teachers help their students see the worldview produced by scientists. But at the same time, however, I believe that the best science teachers also find ways to help their students understand how scientists produce this worldview.
Without these two senses of understanding, I don’t think science educators can produce students who, as citizens outside of school, can participate meaningfully in debates regarding some of the most pressing challenges facing society today and in the future—for example, climate change. Without these two forms of understanding, I feel that students lack a clear model of how scientific trust is assembled and distributed in our society. And, when students lack a clear model of how scientific trust is assembled and distributed in society, it’s my belief that they become more vulnerable to misinformation, deception, and/or outright propaganda.
The state-of-the-art Campo Science Center opened in the fall of 2014.
What do you like most about working at TASIS?
There are quite a few things actually. I enjoy working in the Campo Science building. The classroom space has really changed what we do on a day-to-day basis with our students in the Middle School Science Program. You can imagine how difficult teaching science is when there aren’t enough sinks, gas taps, or electrical outlets to perform even simple experiments. It’s not impossible, it’s just difficult. So the building is one of the things I appreciate most.
I also really like working with my colleagues in the Middle School science Department. Amy Bloodworth and Dr. Prash Sinnathamby are both experienced, wonderful science teachers, and I’ve learned a great deal from working closely with both of them.
I also enjoy the collaboration that our MS Science Department has developed with the MS EAL Department. For the past three years or so, we’ve been working very closely with the MS EAL Department Chair, Dr. Kelly Merritt, and I think this partnership between our two departments has been—and continues to be—extremely productive and valuable.
Finally, I enjoy the linguistic diversity found within our Middle School student population. One of the reasons I appreciate it is because it effectively diminishes the authority normally attributed to the figure of the teacher. In other words, teaching in a classroom that is linguistically diverse makes it easier for my students to see me as a “learner”—of languages, for example—and to see themselves as capable “teachers.” This subtle diminishing of the traditional teacher-as-expert (in everything) and students-as-expert (in nothing) is important to me. It actually helps me build trust within the classroom in ways that feel more authentic and ethical. Simply because of the very nature of their multilingual backgrounds, many TASIS Middle School students can see themselves as experts in areas of life that I am not, and this imbalance levels the playing field, so to speak, in ways that contribute positively to the ethos of my lessons and classroom.
What would you say has been your greatest success at TASIS?
Off the top of my head, I guess I would say that I was deeply honored to receive the Khan-Page Master Teacher Award a few years ago. I would add, however, that I was even more thrilled to see one of my Middle School colleagues, Amy Bloodworth, receive the same award last year. Having two Khan-Page Master Teacher Award winners within a single Middle School department feels like a real educational coup, especially for us nerdy science types.
|When students lack a clear model of how scientific trust is assembled and distributed in society, it’s my belief that they become more vulnerable to misinformation, deception, and/or outright propaganda.|
That said, as strange as this may sound, I would say that my greatest accomplishment is actually something that hasn’t happened yet. For some time now I’ve been conceptualizing and developing a science curriculum focused entirely on food, or rather, what some might call gastronomy. I think I’ve found a way of weaving most of the “big” or “key” ideas of the major scientific disciplines—biology, physics, chemistry, etc.—into the art and practice of growing, choosing, preparing, preserving, cooking, and eating good food. This middle school curriculum is by no means ready yet—one might even say it’s still "fermenting’ or ‘simmering"—but with each passing school year I am increasingly convinced that it could work beautifully here at TASIS and beyond.
What first motivated you to come to Switzerland?
I guess I have always been a mountain kid. When I was a young boy in California, my parents took me into the Sierra Nevada mountains as often as they could. Then, throughout my teenage years, my parents had a summer cottage in the lake and hill country of northwestern Michigan. Michigan’s hills aren’t mountains, mind you, but my friends and I spent loads of time adventuring in them during all four seasons. When I was old enough to travel independently, I found myself visiting mountains again, and again, and again. The Bitterroots, the Wasatch, the Rockies, the Tetons, the Cascades, the White Mountains of Vermont, the Southern Alps of New Zealand—it didn’t matter, I made trips to as many mountainous regions as I could afford. For some wonderful reason, this habit hasn’t changed: I continue to seek out mountains for leisure whenever possible. That’s one of the main reasons why Switzerland became a place I looked for an international school. The European Alps are truly impressive mountains. Some people prefer latitude, some longitude, but I guess I prefer altitude.
Why did you become a science teacher?
I would never say that it was any one thing, but I could make a short list of a few events I suspect contributed toward my becoming a science teacher. First, my father is a professional scientist and I sort of grew up in and around the environments he studied: streams, lakes, and rivers. He was a freshwater ecologist and those environments became a kind of a second habitat for me as a kid. I went on research trips with him; I spent time with him in research field stations; I went to his laboratory on the weekends; and, while he worked on manuscripts, his graduate students often looked after me, teaching me how to work microscopes and how to collect and identify insects. Science sort of became part of a life routine that felt both comfortable and normal to me.
Second, I read very extensively as a kid. My mother instilled in me a great love for books. When I was really young, I loved working my way through world atlases, National Geographic Magazine, and comic books. I loved reading biographies and autobiographies, but also mysteries, fantasies, and other fiction genres. In my late teens and early twenties, my reading preferences shifted sharply toward travel literature and science trade books, a pathway that eventually led me to literature about the nature, practice, history, and philosophy of science. Learning about so many facets of the scientific endeavor captivated me. The many books I read about science made me want to share what I’d learned, and I suspect teaching became a means of sharing science with others.
Finally, even though I had a few not-so-wonderful science teachers in school, I also experienced some spectacular ones. The spectacular ones were so deeply motivating and enchanting that I sometimes found myself thinking: If these individuals derived such genuine pleasure from teaching science, perhaps I could also derive similar levels of pleasure from teaching science. I think this is a big reason why I continue to work in science education today. I still derive an immense amount of pleasure from teaching, learning, and also doing science. Science still enchants me.
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