2021 California Science Education Conference

Teacher of the Year Award (Post-Secondary): Alan Colburn

Alan Colburn

What made you decide to become a teacher?
My dad was a scientist but, in many ways, he was also a teacher. I first thought I might want to be a teacher when I was a 21-year-old student taking my favorite class—Genetics—with my favorite professor, and nevertheless found myself paying as much attention to how he was teaching as what he was teaching. By the time I was 22 I fantasized what life as a college professor would be like. And, although I have neither a wood paneled office nor lunch every day in a faculty club, I have been able to live out much of that fantasy.

Why are you passionate about science education?
Society is dominated by science’s applications. We desperately need everyone to understand what science is—and is not—as well as a handful of basic ideas. We’d be healthier and happier if more people appreciated and trusted science, and understood how scientists think about the observable world. Science teachers—in schools, museums, even parents in homes—are the only ones who can make this happen.

What are some of the most rewarding and challenging aspects of teaching?
The challenges are always massive, but it’s the rewards I’m thinking about now. It’s always been rewarding to watch engaged students, once lacking confidence, now confidently using ideas and skills I helped them acquire. As my career comes close to ending, though, it’s unbelievably cool to see former students who’ve become successful teachers and educational leaders. I feel great pride and happiness at their successes.

What are some lessons you’ve learned throughout your years of teaching?
Students can tell whether you like them. If you don’t like your students, you’re not going to like teaching. If you do like your students, they’ll probably like you. And if you put the effort in to create engaging, organized, relevant lessons, many students will appreciate it—even if it takes a while before you can tell. Some students won’t like you or science, no matter what you do. But a few students will have their lives changed because of you. You may never know about them; sometimes you just need to have faith in things unseen. It’s hard to remember when you’ve slept poorly, have a stack of papers to grade, and kids are bouncing off the walls—but teaching really is the most important job there is.

What does this award mean to you?
As a lifetime CSTA/CASE member, this award serves as a lovely capstone on a career that began in 1986. I’m honored that colleagues and former students thought enough of my work to nominate and select me. I know from experience the time and effort involved in both processes. And, just as an adjuvant makes a vaccine even better, sharing the award this year with a colleague who’s a graduate of my department and program makes it really awesome!


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