Classroom of the Week

In 'the hardest class at Hoosac,' AP chem teacher Cheryl Ryan raises the STEM bar

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CHESHIRE — Ask Cheryl Ryan's students why they take her Advance Placement Chemistry class at Hoosac Valley Middle & High School, and the answers will range from "because I want to be a chemical engineer" to "because we like to punish ourselves."

Now in its sixth year, the program — also known in the halls at "the hardest class at Hoosac" — has 11 juniors enrolled this year, and it's a class both Adams-Cheshire Regional School District Superintendent Robert Putnam and Ryan consider worthy of noting.

Last week, the group boarded a bus around 7 a.m., and spent the day in the chem labs at Williams College under the tutelage of Williams College chemistry professor, Enrique Peacock-L pez, a longtime lab partner in education with Ryan. The visit was one of five trips the class will make to the labs during their yearlong AP course.

Peacock-L pez and Ryan didn't distill the two lab lessons, rather raised the bar for the high schoolers to the college campus level.

Each student brought their own hypothesis, research notebook, and were given their own station and drawer of equipment to access.

Through individual inquiry and as a group, they discussed the exploration of organic compounds in terms of kinetics and reaction rates while performing titrations. They analyzed samples with state-of-the-art infrared spectrophotometers, searching for organic polymers and recording the wavelengths of energy passing through samples.

"It was hard but I actually like it. In class we spend time writing things out on a board, but this makes you realize what you're doing," said student Justin Halley.

"I wish I had something more thoughtful to say, but really, it was also just a lot of fun," Jake Meczywor chimed in.

Back at Hoosac this week, in their own lab, that mood of autonomy and enthusiasm for discovery lingered as they studied the kinetics of the "fading" reaction of a common purple dye, crystal violet, and the rate at which the liquid will fade from a deep purple tone into a virtually colorless vial of liquid when combined with sodium hydroxide.

Music softly played in the background as students worked together in small lab groups.

Just before the bell rang at the class's end, Jenna Charron proudly held up a clear vial. "You did it," Ryan exclaimed.

"All on my own," said Charron, an aspiring chemical engineer.

"See, you don't even need me," Ryan affirmed with smile.

They may not need her help, but it's clear the students want to be in her presence.

Asked what makes the class so special, the students didn't skip a beat in attributing the quality of the course to the quality of their instructor.

"There's never a time we're not working hard in this class, but it helps," said Lindsey Hubbard.

"Plus, she's the only teacher I know who would come to school with a broken foot," quipped Jordyn Carpenter, recalling a time when Ryan taught class from a wheelchair and crutches.

Neither injury nor long hours seem to prevent Ryan from teaching the subject of her passion.

"I'm invested in them. If they need to come in and work at 6:30 in the morning, I'll be here, and if they need to stay til 5, then that's OK," Ryan said. "Their preparation is the confidence they need to be successful. When they leave here, I want them to know they're prepared at a college level and can do work at a college pace."

Now in her thirty-second year of teaching, she keeps tabs on her alumni, who range from engineers to neuroscientists.

Ryan also lauded both Williams College and the school district for their investments in making the class and students successful; Ryan wrote numerous grants in the beginning of the program to get the equipment and texts for the AP course, and when the funding ran out, both Hoosac and Williams worked to ensure the lab field trips and program could continue.

"I'm lucky. This school district is so committed to investing in high-powered science and quality STEM experiences for our students," said Ryan, adding "Williams College has really become so invested in our chemistry program, and the kids love going over there. Having the hands-on learning ability is amazing."

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