Creating a Culture of Nerdy

Bravo Nerdy awards

It all started with a couple of summers spent on fellowships at the Institute for Chemical Education at the University of Wisconsin: Madison. In 1990 after two years of teaching high school chemistry I transferred to help open a school to specialize in Health and Medical education. I was 23 years old and ready to take on the world. The school’s student body was high poverty, 96% of the students qualified for the federal lunch program, and almost the entire student body was classified as minority. It was a good first year.

During the year I read in the Journal of Chemical Education about the availability of summer fellowships at the Institute for Chemical Education (ICE) for people interested in technology. At the time video discs and computer interfaces were a big deal and the brand new school building I was working in had plenty of computers and videodisc players that no one knew anything about. So I applied, got a phone interview, and convinced them to bring me on for a summer (which turned into two summers).

Leaving out some of the detail about what transpired next, I spent a lot of time in awe about the amazing things that were happening at ICE and asking myself if I could recreate them at a high school. It is truly amazing what you think you can accomplish when you don’t know any better. My first quest was to try public outreach to promote chemistry. I was an ACS member, loved the concept of National Chemistry Week, and had been very impressed with what Ron Perkins was doing with his high school students. Ron was in the room next to me at ICE and doing public outreach with his kids. Don Showalter and Marv Lang discovered my interest in chemical demonstrations and were already using me as an assistant that summer and I wanted to do the same with my students. So I called a couple of local elementary schools and found two principals willing to host us for assemblies for their students. I convinced my magnet coordinator to give us a couple of buses and rounded up 20 kids who wanted to, and I quote a wonderful student named Miguel, “Go blow stuff up for some 5th graders”. We needed equipment and raided every storeroom on campus. My Grandmother donated a lot of kitchen gear she was no longer using. I even convinced one of the local research labs affiliated with school of medicine we were across the street from to give us some liquid nitrogen and dry ice. With the supplies we gathered, we were able to perform a two-hour demo show.

It is truly amazing what you think you can accomplish when you don’t know any better.

Being young, probably foolish, and full of dreams I submitted a grant application to the school of medicine and asked for $10,000 to start an outreach program. I knew it was foolhardy but I was young and idealistic. The biggest surprise was they not only gave me the money, but also said I could use one of their office staff to help schedule the trips. We went to elementary schools, our local Children’s Hospital, and once even to Disneyland to do a demonstration show under the Monorail stop.

This was the beginning of NERDy at BRaVO.

Over the next decade or two the program morphed into many different things. We became involved with the National Science Bowl and Ocean Bowl. We became involved in Chemistry Olympiad, that in turn led to physics, biology, and math competitions. Popsicle Stick Bridge Building and Science Olympiad also shaped what our program is today.

Now to the nitty gritty of this story. The name of my school, Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School, can be very misleading. The school is a public school in East Los Angeles, we are a Title One School, and we are not legally allowed to have any entrance requirements. So we are not only attracting students who have strong backgrounds in math and science to begin with. We get a little bit of everything. There is large gang population in the neighborhood and we are fighting to keep the students on the right track. What my little program has done is create a home away from home for the kids who choose to be there. I am giving them an outlet for their energies and an alternative to the not so desirable life they could have on the outside. I do not require any testing to get into the program, we take whoever walks through my classroom door. I will find an event for every student to take part in. Not all of them will be in the high profile events like Science Bowl but everyone will compete. I love events like Chemistry and Biology Olympiad since there is no limit to the number of students who can be involved. My school has tested as many as 125 students for Chemistry Olympiad in a given year.

My classroom is open all day, just like many of the other successful teachers you hear about. I have students arriving as early as 7 AM and staying until as late as 6 PM. We practice something every chance we get. Both the nutrition break and lunch are filled with activity. I give lectures and labs almost every day after school and on many Saturdays. Every student can participate. I have adopted the habit of bringing at least one student to every event whose sole job is to carry around the cooler of food and drinks that my wife so patiently puts together for every event. The “Water Boy” is a vital part of every team and the students refer to the position with the phrase “Everyone has to start somewhere”.

Each year the students design their “NErDy” shirt. It always has some pun based on periodic table squares and the year is listed in Roman Numerals. In fact one year at Science Bowl the kids were laughing because one of the science bowl questions was to express the year number in Roman numerals and they had it printed on their shirts. I have made sure to control the shirts carefully and each of the students who are involved in the program can get one. We don’t give them out to anyone else. They have become the most desired team uniform on our campus.

Now that we have run this program in one way or another for almost 3 decades it has become a tradition and a challenging undertaking every year. Many siblings and other family members have walked in on day one of their ninth grade year and stayed for four years straight. Many keep coming to our Friday afternoon extra chemistry lectures even when they are in college. It has been successful in a measured way. We have produced almost 20 semifinalists in chemistry Olympiad, over 20 in biology Olympiad, two in physics, ten in math, and one student who has gone on to Team USA in Physics. Many of my former students are now professors in four year universities.

I do want to point out one major point in all of this. I have made the choice to undertake all of this without any extra pay. Many of my colleagues ask me to not do it because it sets what they think is a bad precedent for uncompensated time. But it is my choice and I have decided that it is what I do and it is who I am. Paying for al the events can be a challenge also. I have run fundraisers online and done well in getting former members of these teams to help keep the new ones going. Having several successful doctors in the group helps! They never fail to help us reach our goals!

A whole culture of “NErDy” has grown out of these endeavors at Bravo. It is a safe place for the kids and well respected by the administration and other teachers. Several years back I was given an award by the local United Way chapter and they sent a photographer and journalist to my room for a day. I am not great at self promotion and the journalist was kind enough to help me prepare some answers to typical questions asked in that type of interview. One that has been picked up many times over is “What we have done is made it cool to be a high achiever”. I am very grateful to that writer for catching the sentiment and the mood of my program.

I also would not have been able to do any of this without the support of my wife who is constantly at these events and usually coaching one of the squads while we compete.


Editor's Note: This post was submitted for the 2017 ChemEd X Call for Contributions: Creating a Classroom Culture.