By David Boyce
A little over a month ago, Liberty North High School chemistry teacher Mary Coogan was elected Director of Science Teachers of Missouri High Schools. In some respects, Coogan has been training for this position for over 31 years.
Her passion for science started in the late 1970s when she was a student in Liberty Public Schools. Since graduating from Liberty High School, Coogan has taught in four different school districts. She started in Grandview teaching biology, moved to Dalton, Georgia, and taught in the Peach state for a while before returning to Kansas City and teaching at Lincoln College Prep.
In 2000, she returned home and started teaching chemistry and biology for LPS.
“I have gotten to see different ways people teach,” she said. “I have worked with a wide variety of individuals. I think over the course of my career, I have been really lucky. I have been in departments where people work collaboratively together. I have been able to get ideas from veteran teachers. I hope as a veteran teacher I can share some of those ideas now.”
Coogan gets that opportunity at a different level. As the director, she will serve on the board for an organization that has over 2,000 science teachers in it.
“I will share the perspective of high school teachers with other people who serve on the board,” she said. “There is also a middle school director and elementary director. There are folks who represent urban, suburban, and rural areas. I will share information about high school education and share information about the new Missouri learning standards, teaching practices, as well as sample activities.”
The organization meets three-to-four times a year at one location. At a recent meeting about a month ago, Coogan made a presentation with a middle school teacher from St. Louis on formative assessment.
“It is ongoing assessment in the classroom that helps the teacher identify where students are struggling,” Coogan said. “The teacher can use that information to plan the rest of the lesson. Formative assessment helps the students and the teachers identify areas of need which should inform the rest of the instructors.”
Coogan simply wants to help play a role in science education in the state.
“I think the new standards we have are much more improved compared to the previous standards,” she said. “They really will help students express their learning better and help students learn at a deeper level. I really like the new standard.”
From her 16-plus years teaching at LPS, Coogan will be able to share some of the ideas from a school district that puts an emphasis on the sciences.
“I think we do a great job in Liberty as far as science education goes,” she said. “I work with great people. Much of what I am able to do is because of the people around me at both high schools.”
Learning about biology, chemistry, and physics at the high school level is important on several fronts. There are more careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) now than there ever has been in engineering careers and medical careers. Students, Coogan said, are more aware of these career opportunities, and educators do a better job of informing them.
On a more practical level, learning about the sciences is important for students even if they have no thoughts of pursuing careers in those fields. One day in the near future, high school students will become adults and move into neighborhoods around the country. Having what Coogan calls scientific literacy is important.
“I want them to be able to make informed decisions about whether or not we should have a waste treatment plant in the city or whether or not to have a nuclear power plant down the road, and know about the environmental hazards there are with dumping stuff down drains. We need to be more aware.
“I think we are really blessed in Liberty. We have the engineering program and the biomedical programs to complement our more traditional science programs. I think our kids are really lucky. It has definitely changed since I was a student here.”
The road that Coogan has taken to return to Liberty was important in helping her teach Liberty students, in the best way possible, the different sciences. Coogan now teaches theoretical chemistry, which is for first-year chemistry students and college chemistry.
“I really do think getting different perspectives in different places has improved my perception of teaching and improved my practice,” she said. “Surrounding yourself with good people really helps, because we grow so much when we are on a team, especially when a team can have good dialog about what works and doesn’t work. It helps me grow as a professional.”