Russ Cramm

July 31, 2017

Every month in our UCCI newsletter, we feature one of the extraordinary educators we have worked with at the UCCI Institutes and in the UCCI Teacher Exchange. We started this feature so that we could have a way of publicly showcasing how creative, innovative, and smart California teachers are. We archive every issue of the Teacher Spotlight here, on the UCCI website, at our Teacher Spotlight page.

This month the spotlight is on Russ Cramm, Chemistry Teacher at Downey High School.  Russ will be a teacher leader at our UCCI Teacher Exchange, September 15 & 16, 2017 at Simi Valley High School in Simi Valley, CA, focusing on two UCCI courses: Geometry + Computer Visualization/Simulation and Algebra 2 for the 21st Century.

In your own words: What do you do, and why?
My role is to involve students in doing chemistry and stimulate them to see the bigger picture in content, in their skills and in their ethics and contributions in the community.  Involving them leads them to learn the core concepts (curriculum), develop curiosity, think imaginatively, and communicate clearly.  Students absorb more when they are active rather than passive. This requires giving the students some independence, but it is that independence that sparks their curiosity, and motivates them to think imaginatively. 
What was your background prior to your current role, and how did you decide to become a teacher?

I was a construction worker, hazardous waste chemist, analytical chemist and factory worker in a bread making plant.  I always knew I could use my degree to teach, but financial difficulties forced me to change….and what a gift that has been!
You were one of the recipients of the UCCI Course Resources Development Grant.  What prompted you to apply for this Grant?

I was introduced to the  UCCI course, Chemistry and Environmental Engineering: Water Are We Doing in fall of 2014.  In Fall 2016, my district approved adding it to our curriculum.  I knew from my previous exposure to the course that the course needed curriculum that got students active, was rigorous in chemistry and truly trained students in engineering.  I had been playing with ideas for implementing the course while waiting for district approval.  The grant was an opportunity to foster those ideas and deliver a tool to my colleagues that work get students in the lab frequently to learn chemistry and environmental engineering by doing it rather than listening to someone talk about it.

Did you have any experience with integrated curriculum prior to developing materials for the UCCI course  
Chemistry & Environmental Engineering: Water we doing? 
A colleague and I wrote a lab driven Integrated Science course for 9th grade in the late 1990’s.  I wrote many of the lab activities in our course entitled Physical Science of the Earth that integrated Chemistry, Physics, Geology, Atmospheric Science and Astronomy.  This was my first experience integrating fundamental sciences and engineering…but it has been a blast and challenged me in the best ways possible!
If you are currently teaching this course, how did you prepare for teaching it?
My administration has been very supportive to allow me to test many of the materials with students in our traditional chemistry courses this spring and summer.  I  prepared by immersing myself in the areas where I recognized my greatest weaknesses.  I visited sites such as local estuaries to see Environmental Engineering at work, and found myself irresistibly captivated with the ideas about the chemistry of the areas…this inspired a new round of thoughts for lab activities.  Several months of this lead to a pile of ideas…and that pile included a few ones that I tested with students.  My teaching resembles research and engineering: observation  about student learning – hypothesis about what might lead to better learning – design for a curricular activity – trial it with students – discard the idea or tune the idea as appropriate – keep the few nuggets that survive. 
You were a presenter at our recent UCCI Conference, April 29th in San Diego.  Along with a fellow grantee, you did a presentation on Developing Instructional Materials for UCCI Courses.  Please tell us about your experience with developing these materials for Chemistry & Environmental Engineering: Water we doing, and your experiences at the Conference.
I found preparing intimidating at first since Jonathan, my fellow presenter, was so accomplished and his work so well developed.  Fortunately, we traded some emails and that was reassuring.  I then considered what others might find inspiring, I selected items that might stimulate the attendees.  I found the attendees among the most gracious and open teachers who asked compelling questions that drove to the heart of our curriculum ideas.
What are your top three resources (online or otherwise) that you have found most useful in teaching Chemistry?
Early in my career, I benefited from outstanding chemistry teachers such as Don Beard, Connie Gross and Jeff Bradbury.  I would encourage others to develop good relations with colleagues.  The next resource is a willingness to experiment in your teaching, listen to students and to tolerate the “messiness” that comes with doing lots of students activities. The third resource is Tyler Dewitt’s videos.  I use many of them to introduce or review concepts.  They give my students reinforcement from a second voice.

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“I've gained more from this institute in regards to curriculum development than any other program I've been associated with in my 12 years of teaching.” 

- Aaron Lemos, Spring 2013 UCCI Institutes