2015 Beaumier Award for High School/CÉGEP Chemistry Teachers: Yvonne Clifford

Six people standing in front of a periodic table.

Left to right: Jean Hein, Wilma Wigg, Stan Wigg (mentor), Yvonne Clifford, Kathryn Redfearn (teaching peer), Pierre Beaumier.

Yvonne Clifford, Jacob Hespeler Secondary School, Cambridge ON is the 2015 winner of the Beaumier Award for High School/CÉGEP Chemistry Teachers. This Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC) award was presented by Dr. Pierre Beaumier — the award sponsor —at an outreach event at the University of Waterloo in April 2015.

The award is a one-year high school teacher membership in the CIC, a plaque and a $1,000 educational grant to use towards  chemical supplies, equipment, books or other material to enhance the teacher’s classroom. Yvonne has already purchased a Dewar flask for her chemistry classes and the school’s NoFeAr science club.

A woman pouring liquid nitrogen into a large container.

Yvonne is shown having fun with her purchase and some liquid nitrogen. 

Smoke billowing out of a container.We asked Yvonne to give her advice to other chemistry teachers…

In the words of this year’s Canadian Teacher of the Year:

By no means am I an expert in teaching chemistry. I will, however, provide some tips that have worked for me in my quest to provide both an interesting and rigorous chemistry programme for my students.

Tip 1 – Never lose your performance energy

I read a great book many years ago called Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire, by Rafe Esquith. My main take away — all educators need to come to their classroom bursting with the kind of energy the title implies. While I believe I am a consistently energetic person; I know that very occasionally I struggle with the energy gods. And if I’m losing my energy my students will doubtless follow me!  Hence, on my off days, I always re-affirm my commitment to be the ball of energy that can act as the power source for everyone who falls into my daily orbit

Tip 2 - Make it interesting, and they will come!

I like to think that for most days, the majority of my students enjoy coming to chemistry class. Students can look forward to any one (and sometimes multiple) of the following: a demonstration, an experiment, anecdotes, humour, or some kind of activity to help foster the infinite variety that is my chemistry classroom. Story-telling about the elements of the periodic table, for example, is a definite keeper, as it helps to “keep real” what many perceive to be far too esoteric and theoretical. My favourite source in this regard is Sam Kean’s book, The Disappearing Spoon. Another of my favourite authors is Joe Schwarcz, who melds the practical realities of daily life with that of the basic principles that underlie the chemical world around us.

Tip 3 - Don't be elitist

We all know (if you've survived a chemistry degree) that some aspects of chemistry can be challenging — to say the least. My goal is to encourage all students at the high school level, regardless of ability, to take at least one chemistry course.

I believe chemistry offers something valuable to everybody and not just future engineers, nurses and doctors. I always have some students each semester that take chemistry for "fun" (i.e., they sign up to see Harry Potter-like concoctions). I like to encourage all manner of students to my course, and I structure the course so that all students can be successful in their knowledge of the theory and practical lab work. In this way I do my bit to help create intelligent and aware consumers for the future.

Tip 4 - Make it challenging for yourself

Read as much as you can (e.g., Chem 13 News), educate yourself, and attend meaningful and practical chemistry conferences like Chem Ed and STAO. Talk to people! Talk to other teachers!  Learn from old and young. Change things up in your classroom. Try not to get caught in a rut of teaching the same stuff, the same way and with the same demonstrations.
I turn over about 20% of my material per course per year.

Tip 5 - Don't have an ego

I'm not afraid to make mistakes. In fact, sometimes we can learn a lot from our mistakes. The scientific history books are filled with stories of how accidental discoveries — perhaps more than anything else — are responsible for furthering the progress of humankind. Some days you just need to let things happen.

Teaching should never be boring. And the great thing about teaching chemistry is that on any given "bad day" — presto! — you can always turn things around with a great demo. There is nothing like the Ohhhhs! and Ahhhs! and expressions of disbelief emanating from your students to make your day and —perhaps more importantly — theirs better!

Nomination deadlines for national awards for chemistry teachers

Do you know someone in your department who should be recognized? Let’s showcase the work of chemistry teachers! To find more information, go to the websites of the national institutes. Here are some of the national awards to consider.