Expert Spotlight: Desiree Demystifies Biology and Chemistry

Hi Desiree! Thanks for taking the time to chat. Full disclosure: I myself have a biology degree, so I am super super excited to get to know you and your work at Sora and what guides your interests. Can you start by introducing yourself?

Hello! It’s great to meet you too. So my name is Desiree. I’ve been at Sora for a while and focus on biology and chemistry here at Sora.

There are two things I want to know. The first is that I want to hear about all the exciting STEM learning magic you facilitate at Sora. But I also want to know about your exciting learning life. Maybe we can start off with: how did you get into biology? Was it a surprise? Or did you always know? And how did you study it?

I was majoring in health sciences as an undergrad at the University of South Florida and stumbled on an opportunity to teach. I received an email from the university encouraging more people of color to get into peer-to-peer learning in STEM. One of the opportunities was to become an undergrad Teacher’s Assistant (TA).  

It was a long process. I applied and had to take a few exams. I also needed to meet a minimum grade requirement in the course that I was going to TA for, which was General Biology. We took a pedagogy course on how students learn and that’s when I began to learn a lot about learning and how students learn, especially younger students. 

My professor actually approached me to teach students through project-based learning using the “flipped classroom” approach, which requires students to do work before class so that we can use our time together for higher-level thinking and activities. It really promotes student engagement, which is really important for learning retention. 

That’s where my passion really started because I really enjoyed teaching biology. But even more than that, I enjoy coaching students. I would have conversations on the side with the professor about how to best study. How do I improve my study skills so I can make it to the next level or get from a B to an A? And that’s what I like to give students at Sora.

Okay, so what do you think it takes to learn biology? I used to say biology is the science for people who like to read.

I think that is a great way to put it. There is a lot of crossover between language skills and biology skills. And that’s because there’s a whole language system in biology. There are so many things that wound up needing names for the first time, and biologists did the naming in a methodical way. There is a large amount of information to navigate and prefixes and suffixes will tell you a lot. For example, any molecule in any organism that ends in -ase is an enzyme. Proteins will end in -in or -en. Knowing root words can also be very helpful. For example, it’s easy to remember what the Luciferase class of enzymes do, because “Lucifer” is related to the Latin word for “light.” Luciferases are the molecules that work to release light in a phenomenon called bioluminescence. Another example: there’s a division of plants called Pteridophyta that includes ferns. I always remember this because of the beginning of that word — pteridophyta — is spelled with a pt which is related to how pterodactyl is spelled. What that spelling is telling you is this phylum is related to the era of dinosaurs. And if you can imagine movies like Jurassic Park or anything depicting dinosaurs, they usually have ferns in the background. So I do believe reading is a fundamental part of biology in particular. 

Speaking of plants though, you’ve reminded me. In one of the expeditions I taught last year, we used this identification program called iNaturalist and created a tree of life. We took pictures of plants and the students would identify what phyla and what class the plant was in and where it is in the tree of life. Because we had a distributed classroom, it was cool to have students from different geographies help build a tree of life based on what was growing around them. The students actually had to go outside and forage. It’s really cool to have the freedom to apply biology concepts to everyday life. 

Tell me more about the learning expeditions you lead. 

I focus on biology and chemistry at Sora. While the names of the learning expeditions don’t change, the themes and materials might change between academic cycles. I put a lot of thought into my learning expeditions and will even talk to outsiders like my dad because he oversees the middle school STEM curriculum for Broward County. Teaching is in the family, you could say.

So anyway, I created a really cool “Intro to Biological Diversity” learning expedition, as well as “Intro to Chemistry I” and “Intro to Chemistry II.” Right now. I’m teaching the chemistry expeditions, which are perfect for students who want to get into STEM. 

How do your students map their own learning journey in STEM? And how are students supported in their STEM learning and not penalized for not understanding something right away?

Okay, so in traditional school, all ninth graders will have to take biology at the same time for example. At Sora, a student can choose when they want to take biology.

Another big difference is in how we measure learning at Sora. At a traditional school, they measure STEM learning through tests. You get one chance to take the test, and that grade reflects what you’ve learned. If you don’t understand something the first time, you’re penalized and there isn’t a chance to earn back points if you grow in your understanding later.

That’s not the case at Sora at all. Students are able to “level up” with their stars for a unit or ability. A level up is indicating that a student has demonstrated a certain level of mastery to get to the next level of that topic or to completely master that topic. 

For anyone who doesn’t know, Sora uses the mastery-based assessment to measure learning. There is a range of “stars” students can earn to show their competency. 

Let’s use chemistry as an example. Imagine a student who has never taken chemistry before their ninth-grade year, they’ll start off with zero stars in all topics. Then as a student goes through chemistry, they will be exposed to concepts like the periodic table. Let’s say we go over the periodic table and they understand the basic structure of the periodic table. Maybe I’ll give them two stars. But if they can demonstrate a deep understanding of periodic trends and what happens to the properties of atoms as you travel around the chart with things like electronegativity and atom bonding, I can give them up to four stars, which represents the highest level of mastery. Not only do they know basic ideas, but they can apply what they know in an analytical way. 

What happens if a student earns two stars on the periodic table and wants to continue to master the concept? Well, the periodic table will show up in other STEM courses, allowing the student many opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and potentially earn stars towards mastery. 

I really believe struggle helps build a person’s character and the better a person can handle setbacks, the more successful they’ll be. And that’s why I enjoy playing the role of an academic coach.

What are some careers that people who are really good at biology or really good at chemistry can do, aside from the things that we all know about, like working in healthcare?

Okay, that’s a great question. There’s a whole segment of the economy related to the environment that relies heavily on biology. For example, advancements in pest control. Understanding the behavior of certain insects to create a targeted method for their removal is a big industry. Biomimicry is also a vast field, where designers use biological systems to model their products. That’s because if you need to create a specific material or product that provides a specific utility, you can usually just think backward and say: okay where would the conditions in nature be just right in order to naturally create that material?

Cosmetics and cleaning products are huge industries for chemistry. Cleaning products are interesting. Do you know how the Magic Eraser works? They make you add water so you might think the water activates something. It doesn’t. The product cleans through a mechanical reaction. The sponge itself has sandpaper qualities. If you buy that material in bulk as an off-brand thing, it will work exactly the same.

What lines of inquiry do you explore on your own in biology and chemistry?

One of my hobbies is making my own tea blends. I’m very interested in natural medicine and herbalism and I like to read about ways to help alleviate chronic conditions through plants. I just find it very interesting how much nature can heal us (or poison us, honestly) and how much is available. Learning about the different qualities of things like chamomile, lavender, Linden leaves, berberine, parsley, and turmeric is something I enjoy. 

Okay, last question: what else should students know about you?

There are some scholarships where high school students are nominated to them and I’d really love to nominate a Sora student. I put out a scholarship link in the announcements and opportunities discord channel for something called The Princeton Prize in Race Relations in High School. The award is $1,000 and a trip to Princeton where you get to meet a lot of cool professors and present your project. I actually did it myself and presented my project to the NAACP president, which was about Childish Gambino and how his art reflected the experience of Black men in America. I want to help my students connect to cool opportunities like this.



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