VERONA, NJ—Verona High School ninth-grade science teacher Mark Randalls has a unique talent for taking the fun and magic out of science, students of his comprehensive survey class reported Tuesday.
"I have a lot of information I'm required to impart to these children before they complete this grade and move on to dedicated physics, biology, or chemistry," Randalls said. "If I tried to illustrate each and every aspect of science with an experiment or anecdote, we would never complete the necessary coursework by year's end."
A 25-year veteran instructor in Verona, Randalls teaches his students the periodic table using a standard wall-sized chart, the appropriate page in the same Houghton-Mifflin science textbook he's used since 1982, and a few minor experiments he runs by himself to save time.
"As you can see from the math I assigned you last night, the element sodium combines with water in an exothermic reaction, which means it gives off heat and, in some cases, light," Randalls said, doing the work at a safe distance from his fifth-period students. "Now, I'm using just a small grain of sodium, so there isn't the large flash you might get, not that you could see it in this stainless-steel bowl. But you can see the temperature go up on our thermometer here."
Randalls then asked the student with the highest grade on the last weekly quiz, Mike Lendberg, to come up and read the temperature change off the unwieldy dial thermometer.
"Mr. Randalls says science is a way of understanding how the universe works," said Lendberg. "At least he said that on the first day. I've kind of tuned him out since then."
"I wonder if two-tenths of a degree is a lot," Lendberg added. "Well. Probably not."
For his part, Randalls said he believes a firm grounding in the basics is the most important education he can give his class, and that he constantly battles distraction in school.
"The other day, Amy Bethke asked me how sodium can be part of salt if it is poisonous," Randalls said, shaking his head. "I had to waste two minutes explaining how it has a stable bond with the element chlorine. Then, when I tried to go on, she realized chlorine was also poisonous, and said, 'Isn't that weird that two deadly elements combine to make harmless table salt?' I finally had to send her to the office to make copies just to get her to stop interrupting the class."
Added Randalls: "These kids are getting worse every year. It's a wonder I get any teaching done at all."
Other points left out of Randall's discussion of the periodic table include a discussion of how simple flammable hydrogen makes up more than 90 percent of the universe, a demonstration of sound waves propagating strangely in helium, and an explanation of carbon's role in the creation of both coal and diamonds, as well as its use as a building block for life.
Nearly all of Randalls' students, or at least those who have chosen not to frequently skip class, have expressed dissatisfaction with his approach to science.
"I was really looking forward to last month's electricity unit," said freshman Don Linzmann, whose prior exposure to Bill Nye and Cosmos reruns got him interested in physics. "I'd heard about these cool things called Van de Graaff generators, which make your hair stand up when you touch them, and this thing called a Jacob's Ladder that makes a really huge arc of electricity. But all we did was spend a week calculating amperage."
After another week spent on the periodic table, Randalls will begin teaching a unit on anatomy.
"I just hope these kids sit still for the frog dissection in two weeks," Randalls said. "I went to great lengths to procure a five-part filmstrip series that illustrates the frog anatomy step-by-step so we won't have to create a lot of mess dissecting the animals ourselves. Besides, the class always gets way too rambunctious when we try to do a lab."