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‘Rock star’ science teacher creates curiosity

January 23, 2015
Valerie Schmalz

Boiling water while the water gets colder runs counter to every common assumption.

That experiment was a day in the life of the chemistry class at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory recently, where “rock star” chemistry teacher Ramsey Musallam’s goal is to “create curiosity.”

Musallam is a bit of an Internet sensation in the education world, with an April 2013 TED talk that has 1.6 million hits and counting, an award-winning high energy Internet TV show, “Infinite Thinking Machine,” as well as a blog cyclesoflearning.com. He is also adjunct professor at University of San Francisco where he obtained his doctorate in education in 2010. The 38-year-old married father of four children consults around the world and gives talks at technology and education conferences.

For Musallam, however, the media is far from being the message – the medium is just a tool, and no whiz-bang technology can compensate for a hardworking creative teacher who approaches each class with new ideas, and a new lesson plan.

While a traditional approach has been to give a lecture and then perform the experiment, Musallam frequently flips the process, a process dubbed flip teaching – and he creates phone videos for each class to access for more information when they do their homework at home. Each class receives an individually created lecture and approach and each year is different, he said.

“I hate when people say you’ve been teaching for 14 years, you can just pull out the old stuff. No one would say that to Picasso,” said Musallam, who has a bachelor of science from UC Davis in molecular and cellular biology. “My job is way harder the more veteran I get.”

“I feel like I’m working 50 times harder than I did my second or third year teaching,” Musallam said. He teaches two classes in Sacred Heart Cathedral’s new Inquiry and Innovation program as well as serving as program director and teaches three Advanced Placement (AP) chemistry classes.

Creating an intellectual dissonance is key to Musallam’s teaching method. “Student questions are the seeds of real learning,” Musallam said in his TED talk.

“Anyone who knows a 4-year-old, knows they want to ask why,” Musallam said in his TED talk, with a photo of his 4-year-old daughter on the screen behind him. “I can teach this kid anything because she is curious about everything. The challenge for her future teachers is – how will they grow this curiosity?”

TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged and now TED talks have created a global community and the talks cover almost all topics in more than 100 languages.

“I used the talk to call out educational technology,” Musallam said. In the six-minute talk, Musallam both uses technology – as he does in his classroom – and demonstrates the importance of human beings as teachers.

Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of San Francisco Maureen Huntington calls Musallam a “rock star” science teacher. “He is fabulous!” said Huntington.

The discovery of an aneurysm at the base of his aorta in 2010 jolted Musallam out of 10 years of “pseudo-teaching” he said in the talk, and the attitude of the surgeon who saved his life transformed his approach to teaching. He says that it harder to prepare and teach now than when he started teaching, but he believes he is a much better teacher. “Curiosity drove him to ask hard questions about the procedure,” said Musallam of the surgeon, who said he found “surprising moments of comfort in the confidence of my surgeon.” The surgeon’s willingness to embrace “the messy and inevitable process of trial and error,” and with intense reflection to find a procedure that worked meant that “with a steady hand, he saved my life.”

“I believe that learning in the classroom should mirror how problem solving and learning actually happens,” Musallam told Catholic San Francisco. “When you learn something it is because you feel an intrinsic need to learn something.”

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