Award-winning Blue Valley Northwest biology teacher finds the means to ‘meet students where they are’

08/27/2013 4:24 PM

08/27/2013 4:26 PM

Jeremy Mohn spent his summer vacation figuring out how to make his website work on mobile phones.

Mohn, a science teacher for 13 years at Blue Valley Northwest High School, knows that students accessing his blog and online course curriculum aren’t just sitting down at a desktop.

“I use technology to meet students where they are,” Mohn said. “Today, most students are far ahead of adults.”

And most adults don’t try as hard as Mohn, 36, to bridge the gap. His efforts online and in the classroom led the Kansas Association of Biology Teachers to recently name him the Outstanding Biology Teacher of the Year. In November, he’ll represent Kansas at the National Association of Biology Teachers’ conference in Atlanta.

“He’s a great member of our science department. He’s a Steady Eddie,” said Principal Amy Murphy. “He comes to work. He does a fabulous job. He gives everything that he has to make sure his kids are successful.”

Everything includes bringing his guitar to class. Mohn has a small set list of science-themed songs — a ditty about measurements sung to Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Jonathan Coulton’s “That Spells DNA,” and They Might Be Giants’ “My Brother the Ape.”

“I do it at the beginning of the year, because then the students have a better idea of where I’m coming from, and it teaches them a method for what we’re doing,” Mohn said. “I don’t do it very frequently, because I think it’s kind of obnoxious. If I had a teacher that brought his guitar to class, I think it would get really old.”

Although Mohn may be judicious with his use of musical instruments, he freely incorporates technology into the learning process. Right around the time of that opening number, each student receives a hand-held remote. Those clickers are key to classroom participation as the course moves over the school year from chemical interactions to ecosystems. Mohn uses a software system that lets students punch in their answers (each remote has its own unique radio frequency) to multiple-choice or factual questions on the display at the front of the room.

“The entire course is designed to encourage students to ask as many questions as possible,” Mohn said. “The scientific method is implicit. The question of ‘How do you know that?’ isn’t necessarily uttered, but I like to think of it as an organizing principle.”

Mohn rarely lectures, instead preferring the collective search for an answer. He inserts video clips at the end of discussions to reinforce a principle or explain the history behind a given theory.

“Science can become really dry, especially with all of the new terminology that students have to learn,” Mohn said.

Mohn is currently teaching Honors Biology to freshman and Advanced Placement Biology to juniors and seniors. But for eight of his first 10 years at Blue Valley Northwest he taught Field Biology. For that course his students designed and installed a pair of turtle islands for the St. Andrews Golf Course in Overland Park.

“One of our students fell out of a canoe while we were installing the floating platform,” Mohn said. “Luckily, it was 1 foot deep.”

The platforms helped St. Andrews earn its certification for the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program. Everyone returned home fine, if not dry.

Mohn also has been a staunch advocate for the teaching of evolution. He saw the potential need for advocacy while student-teaching under (the now retired) Blue Valley High School science teacher Harry McDonald — a vocal and oft-quoted source on the debate at the statewide level over evolution and creationism. Mohn launched a blog, Standing Up for Real Science, in December 2007 to start a dialogue about science standards and evolution theory.

“What I’ve done in the teaching of evolution in my classroom and what I’ve done on my blog are two separate things,” Mohn said. “I’m interested that the teaching of evolution in public schools is defended from people that would like to change the standards for reasons that are not scientific, but it gets into lots of issues that I feel are not appropriate for a public school classroom.”

Even if his students don’t go into the field of biology — although every year he has more students coming back on their college breaks to talk about biotechnology or their first-year courses — Mohn thinks what he’s teaching will still be a critical component of their future.

“I think of all of the ages, this is the age of biology,” Mohn said. “This is not just about knowledge, it’s about developing the skills to interpret scientific knowledge in order to make informed choices and be better able to understand new discoveries.”


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