Things sizzle and flash – and sometimes things stink horribly – in Dave Jones’ classroom.
It’s just a matter of time before an assignment takes an unusual (sometimes unexpected) turn, which are just some of the reasons why Jones’ students love science and thrive under his tutelage.
In Room 52 at Missoula’s Big Sky High School, the longtime chemistry teacher encourages his students to challenge preconceived notions.
“For me, it’s about getting students to think about what they know and how it is they know it,” Jones said Tuesday, while his Chem 3 class was busy mixing copper nitrate and magnesium nitrate to build small batteries as powerful as two AA batteries.
“Everything I try to do in the classroom is based on some kind of data the students have collected themselves,” he said. “Atoms, for example, is something we can take for granted. Yet when we ask how do we know atoms exist, and they have to investigate that, that’s when the learning begins.”
Jones is keenly aware that chemistry is one of those classes that is loaded with baggage for students – they believe they can’t do it, that it’s too hard.
He wins that battle year after year though, by showing students that chemistry uses pretty simple math, and that once that math is mastered, there’s an endless, curious, fascinating, creative and fun world to explore – or to explode.
“Uhh, Mr. Jones, the chemical is more corrosive than we thought and it’s eating through the container,” a student shouted out.
The drama was met calmly by Jones, who patiently suggested the student find a different container near the sink.
“It is just amazing to me to watch these guys,” Jones said, a smile on his face as he watched the students toil away at their project. “They are so into what they are doing, and they are having so much fun learning it.”
“It’s a pleasure to see them all make strides in their intellect and personalities – really becoming confident in who they are,” he said. “And what makes it so interesting is that every one of these guys is so different, and yet each and every one of them is able to contribute to all of what we do here.
“Cliche as it sounds, it’s great chemistry.”
It’s not by accident or good luck that Jones’ students thrive in his classes.
Science is dynamic, and it isn’t just something to memorize, Jones said. Science happens best when there is rigorous discussion, problem-solving, questioning and debate.
To have that happen, it requires building a community within the classroom and creating a classroom that inspires such interaction.
In Jones’ class, don’t expect to find neat rows of desks. Instead, the desks are bunched together in small groups to serve as work stations to sit and talk, but also to spread out materials and notes.
“I think students really learn best when they have the opportunity to talk with one another and talk about what they are thinking,” Jones said. “I want them to know that we are all in this together.”
Jones’ daily task is to keep his young minds engaged and excited about the work at hand.
The burden is on him to create assignments that have real-world applications that are interesting and inspire students to rise to the challenge.
“Having tangible goals in the learning environment is something I think helps every student,” he said. “And I try as often as possible to have them reflect on what we are trying to do – to find answers, possibly new answers.”
Tristan Tanner said he was always good in math, but he didn’t know if he could do chemistry.
When the senior first tried his hand at it in one of Jones’ classes, he was hooked.
“Mr. Jones has a really good way of making you understand chemistry, which is hard because chemistry is something you can’t always see, you have to visualize it,” Tanner said. “I wasn’t that into it until I got into his class, and then I found it fascinating by everything you can do with chemicals.”
As he swirled a beaker of magnesium nitrate, Tanner paused to appreciate how it made the glass become cold.
“Chemistry really challenges me – and that’s why I like it,” he said. “Usually, in other classes, the teachers bust out the books and make you read.”
As one of the many seniors who has taken three years of chemistry with Jones, Austin Rosenbaum said the experience has made him understand the world in a different way.
“With chemistry, you can do so much with it,” Rosenbaum said, “and there is so much to learn and discover. Mr. Jones teaches in such a way it makes me want to learn more.”
“And it’s really fun,” said Cole Hayes. “Even with bare chemicals, things flare up, they explode and it makes things interesting.
“Mr. Jones pushes us, but at the same time, he likes to help all of us out and get us going in the right direction.”