Interview: Biology teacher goes the extra mile

Myron Blosser talks to Eureka! Lab about his career as a science teacher and how he gets students involved in science

This week I am very pleased to get to interview Myron Blosser. Mr. Blosser is a biology teacher and head of the science department at Eastern Mennonite School in Harrisonburg, Va. He has taught high school biology for more than 30 years and is the winner of the 2013 Virginia Outstanding Biology Teacher Award. He teaches 10th grade biology, advanced placement biology and biotechnology courses.  He also leads students every year on an 8,500-mile trip across the United States to learn about science. These Discovery Trips expose high school students to scientific and technological issues across the country.

A video of our conversation is below, and a transcript follows.


Bethany: Hello and welcome to another of our interview series at Eureka! Lab! I am your host, Bethany Brookshire. I am the writer of Eureka! Lab. And today I have a terrible cold. I don’t know if you can hear it. But I am still incredibly excited to be here. Because today I am delighted to be interviewing Myron Blosser. Mr. Blosser is a biology teacher at Eastern Mennonite High School in Harrisonburg, Va. He is the winner of the 2013 Virginia Outstanding Biology Teacher Award. And when I was in high school, he was my advanced placement biology teacher. He is one of the people that started me on the road to science and where I am today. So I am absolutely thrilled to have him here! Hi, Mr. Blosser.

Mr. Blosser: Hello Bethany, it’s great to see you again. It can’t be that long ago since you were in my classroom.

Bethany: It was a good decade or so! I would like to hear about your job at Eastern Mennonite High School. What exactly do you do as a biology teacher and as head of the science department there?

Mr. Blosser: That’s a good question. School starts here at 8:00 a.m., and I am always here by 6:30 a.m. Being the kind of biology teacher that I need to be means getting here early. Science teaching is different from English or math or social studies instruction. We have labs to set up, labs to take down, glassware to wash. We have so much equipment to take care of. It takes a lot of extra work to take care of that equipment. So my job not only involves teaching.

I love to teach. Currently I’m teaching two sections of 10th grade biology and I’m teaching a section of advanced placement biology. I’m also teaching a course on biotechnology that focuses just on biotechnology principles and applications. With those different classes that means different labs, different equipment, a lot of supplies and materials. So I spend most of my day actually not teaching. That’s kind of what it means to be a science teacher. You spend a lot of time working with budgets, buying materials and supplies and even washing glassware.

Bethany: I will admit that I never actually thought about who washed my glassware in high school labs. Thank you for washing my glassware.

Mr. Blosser: You are welcome!

Bethany: So on a daily basis, how do you prepare for class? What kind of preparations do you do? When do you do a lot of your preparation, grading and things like that?

Mr. Blosser: Well once again, getting to school an hour and a half before the students allows me to do a lot of the preparation. That’s when I do a lot of the preparation for the day. Also after school I do a lot of the preparation for the day. But all of the grading, all of making out of tests, quizzes, any kind of review sheets? All of that takes place in the evening. And so when I go home in the evening, I spend my evenings usually in front of the computer, or grading papers. So in a sense I take my work home with me almost every day. I try to think what parts of my job I can do at school, what parts can I take home. And those parts I can take home I usually do take home.

In addition, I am working at flipping my advanced placement classroom. So I have videos that I create and videos that I find online for my students to watch and I post those. All of that I do at home. Because I don’t need to be at school to do any of that. At school is when I do the prep for labs and in-classroom kind of preps.

Bethany: Wow. That sounds like there’s a lot of work involved in being a science teacher. What made you want to become a science teacher?

Mr. Blosser: That’s an interesting question. I grew up loving the out-of-doors. I grew up loving what we now call the natural world. I grew up on a farm. And I would wander around the farm, hundreds of acres. With my BB gun. I would wander around just enjoying what I could see.

Yeah. So I had a fascination with life, with how things live and grow. It was my high school biology teacher that put in my head that I could have a profession talking about and studying that which I fell in love with as a little boy. So that was the first idea that I had, when I was in high school biology. Man wouldn’t that be fun? To talk about this stuff all day long.

When I went to college I majored in biology. So my bachelor’s degree is in biology. And I took a class as a freshman called “Exploring Teaching” where they had us go out to a local school. I went to Harrisonburg High School, and we simply shadowed a biology teacher there. And I realized that that was something that I thought I could do. So it was that freshman biology experience, it was my high school biology teacher, and all those years of growing up on the farm that made me decide that, you know what? This is the profession for me.

Bethany: That’s great. It’s clear that you really love your job and love what you do. What do you love most about being in the classroom and teaching high school science?

Mr. Blosser: What I think I love most is the idea that I can make others learn that which I am passionate about. What I mean by learn about it is that I can help them achieve their goals. When I see my students I try to think about what goals might they have that I as a teacher can help them achieve. It might be getting into the college of their choice. But for me the ultimate goal, of course, is to learn about the natural world, and that includes learning about yourself. And that brings a lot of excitement to the class, to work with that.

And to be honest with you, I think one of the things that keeps the excitement in me is that I’m a risk taker, I like to push the envelope. So I like the idea of being in a profession where I’m encouraged to take risks. Those risks are risks that I think enable my students to have a better experience in school. And so for me every day is trying to find out, how can I take better risks? How can I teach in a way that encourages others to learn more? And what I’ve come to is the idea that my students need to experience their learning. Mark Twain has that quote that says, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”

Bethany: I bet!

Mr. Blosser: I take that to mean that if I can get my students to experience science, they’ll learn things that normally they would not be able to learn. That idea of creating excitement in science is something that keeps my passion high. It involves risk taking, and it allows me to have my students fuse collaboration with others, with scientists, with trying to be relevant and also having my students be dynamically involved in what they do. So I kind of bring those pieces together, that’s what stirs my passion.

Bethany: You have a couple of ways in which you get students involved in science. One of them is that you run Discovery trips. When I was in high school it was called Coast to Coast, and I went on one and it was a formative experience for me. What gave you the idea to do these Discovery trips, and what do you feel their purpose is?

Mr. Blosser: Good question. One of the reasons why I have tried to take these trips is that it’s like the ultimate risk. To take a group of high school students for a month across the United States, meeting with people and learning science in the environment that you should learn it in. For me it’s like the ultimate risk taking. So there’s a little bit of adrenaline behind the idea. And then I was surrounded by other teaching professionals at Harrisonburg High School, you may remember, that were very encouraging and supportive. And so I think those early years of support and encouragement allowed me to take risks that I’m still taking today.

There are about 8,500 miles that we travel in a month. We travel in a full sized motor coach, we take some of the seats out, now we have a generator on board. We have wireless hubs so we have wireless internet access. The students camp, so every night we pull up to a campsite, we set up our campsite, we set up our tents and we cook our own food.

But the nuggets are when we meet with professionals. We meet with all kinds of people that help us understand a variety of case studies. The last couple of trips we started by meeting with Wendell Berry. Wendell Berry is an author and a writer. We start with sitting around the fire with Wendell Berry, and talking about his passions for the natural world. And then we start doing case studies, whether it’s agriculture, whether it’s water, energy.

This past summer we did technology and we stopped at Google headquarters in California. The students were able to see the robotic car that drives around without anybody manning it. We talked about what role technology plays in our lives. The last night of the trip we spent on an Amish farm (where they use only the most basic technology and no electricity). So we got to see the dissonance.

I think the dissonance piece is the piece I am the most excited about. If you think about dissonance, it’s when things come together and butt heads, they clash. That’s the model I try to use as we cross the United States studying a variety of issues. You may remember studying the Brucellosis bison issue in Yellowstone National Park.

Bethany: Yes, I do!

Mr. Blosser: That was a big dissonance piece. We talked to a rancher that shoots the bison when they come out of the park. We talked to an environmental group that wants to protect the bison. Then we talked to the park biologist who’s caught in between. We like to use that model if we can. To allow students to realize that within the United States there are a lot of exciting things going on that we need to learn about.

I’ve noticed that a lot of our students today cross the ocean and go to all these different countries, but never go past the Mississippi River. So part of my passion is for kids to learn their own country. And this Discovery trip allows them to do that.

Bethany: Now you’ve been doing these Discovery trips for a significant amount of time. When you set them up, how did you find the people and the places to go? How did you set it up? How did you get the funding? How did you handle it logistically?

Mr. Blosser: Well, actually, the first trip was back before we did a lot with e-mail. So we actually eased into these trips without all the technology that we have today. In fact on the first trip we took a satellite phone just in case we needed to make a phone call. And I remember we were charged $7 a minute, every time we needed to make a call on that phone.

Bethany: Wow.

Mr. Blosser: Now it’s a whole different world. But the way I started this was by watching the news, reading the newspaper and trying to figure out what are the hot issues in these states that we need to learn about. I remember reading this article in USA Today about this student who graduated from Humboldt State University while tree sitting in one of the giant trees out in California. He was protesting it being cut down. So I got an idea. Let’s meet this man, let’s talk to him about his passions.

That led to the dissonance, where I said, well who would want to cut it down? That led us to the Rough and Ready Lumber Company. So we contacted them, and that’s how we set up that dissonance piece. It was learning about the issues that face us and trying to track down those persons that we think can best articulate that for our students.

Bethany: That’s an amazing amount of dedication. The students (and I know because I did it) get a truly amazing amount of inspiration and learning out of these trips. What do you hope that they really gain? You emphasize dissonance lot. Do you hope they gain critical thinking? Deeper knowledge of the issues?

Mr. Blosser: That’s a great question. The essence of this trip is to understand issues from multiple perspectives, to be able to hold those multiple perspectives in our hands and play with them a little bit. In fact I remember one student who said when we got back, “I thought when I went on this trip that I would find the side of each of the issues I studied that I would champion. Now that I’m back, I realize that my mission is to bring the two parties together and have them discuss the issues.” So that’s really what I want, for students to be able to see that there are good points of view on both sides of the issues. And for them to be able to understand the value of listening to multiple perspectives and not simply jump in one camp immediately and ignore perspectives from another position. So that’s kind of the non-scientific value of this, along with learning a tremendous amount of science.

Bethany: On the other hand, I would say that learning to look at several sides of an issue is an important thing when doing science. You need to be able to give up your pet hypothesis and realize that this might be more complicated than you thought. Or that it might be wrong. You need to be able to consider other options. It could be pretty useful for science as well.

Mr. Blosser: That’s true, and I do think it makes them better scientists. In fact, once of my joys is to take students on these trips that I will be teaching the next year. They are different students when they come back. It’s really exciting for me to teach students that have been with me for a month on these explorations. We understand each other much better. And we both kind of see things differently than we did before these trips. So you’re exactly right.

Bethany: That’s not the only awesome thing you do to get kids interested in science. You also run a biotechnology symposium every year. What is it and what does it do?

Mr. Blosser: Once a year, it’s usually in March, we set aside a day and invite the local schools to come in. Usually it’s anywhere from 10 to 20 different schools that participate. They send a group of usually upper-level students. A lot of them are students currently enrolled in advanced placement biology. We come together for a day of concentrated biotechnology discussion. We start with a keynote speaker. We’ve had a scientist from Monsanto, Francis Collins from the National Institutes of Health has been here, Augusto Odone, if you remember that name from the movie Lorenzo’s Oil, he’s the father of Lorenzo, he came and spoke. We’ve had a variety of speakers that have come, and they have been pretty significant speakers.

We have a keynote speech and afterwards there’s time for students to ask questions. And then we break the students up into two groups. One group goes off and does lab work, there are between six and seven labs at one time. The other half of the students go to additional seminars and learning activities. Then we switch the students. So half the day is spent with a keynote and a major idea. The other half is spent learning techniques, learning more about biotechnology, manipulating DNA, running gels, doing a lot more of the biotechnology kinds of things. This year will be the 21st year of the symposium, and usually we have about 400 students that come. It’s very stressful and very exciting, and it’s just a fun day.

Bethany: That’s really neat. You have these great ideas, and it’s clear you want to inspire these students. You get a lot of them involved in research. How do you go about making the connections to help students to get into laboratories? Do the students work in laboratories at universities? How do you make those connections?

Mr. Blosser: Well, that’s an interesting question. In fact I had a teacher stop me in the hall a week ago and say, “I want to do what you do. Can you give me some ideas of things I can have my students do?” And I looked at this teacher and I said, “have you ever heard that you need to bend your knees before you can jump?” And he kind of got this questioning look on his face and I said, “You need to experience things before you can learn how to have your students experience things.” And so one of the values I think that teachers need to think about is getting out, learning and getting to know people in their discipline. For me that would be scientists, so that I have contacts. I spent a month up at Cold Spring Harbor Labs working on molecular genetics. I met James Watson and talked with him on almost a daily basis.

That’s just one example of a place I’ve become familiar with. I know scientists now all across the United States. I make it a regular habit to wander into the science buildings of the colleges we have here around Harrisonburg (James Madison University, Eastern Mennonite University, Blue Ridge Community College, Bridgewater College) simply because I want to get to know them. Once I learn to know them, I’ve got a contact. And so as soon as I have students that have a question or would like to work in a lab, I’ve got 10 to 12 ideas immediately, because I know people. So I’m constantly learning to know new people, learning what research they do and then working to get students involved in those different areas of research. It’s a constant effort on my part to push myself to learn to know new people, new techniques, new ideas, so I have places for my students to plug into.

Bethany: That’s really great. Have a lot of your students gone into STEM: science, technology, engineering and math? Do you have a higher number than average? Do your students have a really good scientific awareness in general?

Mr. Blosser: I don’t have any hard data on that one. Interestingly enough, my head of school asked me a similar question very recently: “How many of your students are medical doctors? How many of your students are in the medical profession, or are doing bench research or somehow doing science research?” And I really don’t know. Though I do know that I have a lot. There are a lot of students that I teach that go off and do something in a scientific field. It’s very exciting to me, because they keep in touch, and I get to find out about it. And now, the cool thing is, just like you, they are becoming my peers. And so now we are working together. You used to be my student, now you’re my peer working in education, and that’s very exciting to me.

Bethany: Well, I would just like to say you haven’t aged a day, you look totally the same.

Mr. Blosser: Well, thank you.

Bethany: Do you have any advice for, say, students who realize they like biology and that they want to be a biology teacher? And do you have any advice for biology teachers who might have big ideas for ways to get their students interested, but might not be sure how to implement them?

Mr. Blosser: There’s a quote, I think the quote comes from Eleanor Roosevelt, I’m not sure where the quote originated, and it says, “Small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, but great minds discuss ideas.” I think part of my advice would be, for teachers and students alike, to try and start having conversations about ideas. Get off the people thing. Get off of the major events that have occurred in science, and start having discussions centered around major scientific ideas. And that breeds a lot of questions. And if you have questions then you have a direction.

I’d probably advise teachers to try and bend their knees a little bit. Try to do things that involve a little bit of risk. There’s an old saying that says that “people will gather around a fire, like a house fire or a barn fire, just to watch it burn.” I think excitement breeds excitement. When your classroom is on fire, and usually it’s on fire because of ideas, then people will gather around you. One of the ways that I tell teachers that they know if they’re successful is that they have groupies. Groupies are students who just want to be in your room. They just want to hang around, because they never know when the next idea is going to be birthed and they want to be present. And so that’s the kind of atmosphere you want to work at, to build anticipation for when the next idea is going to come. And usually those ideas come when I’m talking to students. And so students want to be in those conversations because they could be the birth of the next big idea.

And for students alike I would encourage them to start thinking about scientific ideas. Learn about things that are current and today and ask questions. Because those questions will give birth to ideas for research. And don’t be afraid to ask. I’m impressed daily by how you can send an e-mail or call someone on the phone that is a significant scientist and they will take the time to talk to you and to respond to your e-mails. I tell my students, the most they can do is say no. So I would encourage people to not be afraid. Walt Disney had that quote that I like, I actually have it hanging on the wall of my office, and it says, “the way to get started is to quit talking and start doing!”

Bethany: That’s fantastic. This has been just an amazing interview. I do have one final question though. What is the weirdest thing that you have ever done in the name of science?

Mr. Blosser: Probably the weirdest things involve putting things in my mouth. Probably licking the slime off a banana slug in Redwoods National Park. It was to show students that the slime will cause your tongue to become numb. That was pretty weird. We had a bus licking contest at one point, where we would try to see who could jump the highest, and the way you marked your height was to put a lick mark on the side of the bus.

And one time I had a bet with a student to see who could keep a pine needle in our mouth the longest. So I kept a pine needle perched up in my cheek, I think it was for 3 to 4 days, but then one morning I woke up and it was gone. I don’t know if I swallowed it or what happened, but the student won that bet. So my weirdest experiences are always eating strange things or licking strange things.

Bethany: Well, I will say that actually on that trip I also licked a banana slug for science. And there is still a photo of me with my numb tongue having licked a banana slug.

Mr. Blosser: That’s a great moment. Jumping into a high country lake in Glacier National Park to show students the lake. That was pretty significant. The water temperature I think was 34˚ Fahrenheit (water freezes at 32˚ F). So that was one of those moments I won’t soon forget.

Bethany: …or possibly repeat. Well, thank you so much for coming on and doing this interview. You have been an inspiration to me in many ways, and I’m sure that you have been an inspiration to many other students as well. Thank you so much, congratulations on your outstanding teacher award, and thank you for coming on and telling us what it’s like to be a science teacher!

Mr. Blosser: Thank you so much for having me on. I am impressed with what you are doing! Thank you so much for this opportunity. 

Power Words

biotechnology  using processes and parts from living things to make or improve technology. We use biotechnology to do everything from growing crops to developing new medicines.

Brucellosis  the bacterium Brucella abortus, which causes disease in animals and humans. In Yellowstone National Park, the native bison can spread Brucellosis to local cattle herds, which causes a dispute between those who want to protect the bison and the ranchers who wish to protect their herds.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.