Derrick Wood C’04 is honored for bringing a real-world, case-study approach to learning chemistry

During college Derrick C. Wood C’04 glided along two tracks. His main interest was analytical chemistry but, being a practical sort, he also earned a teaching certificate. He’d thought about pursuing a graduate degree in chemistry, but abandoned the idea once he began student teaching. “I was really turned on to teaching,” he says. “I had an almost intuitive understanding of what was going on in schools, and what needed to be changed.”

An AP chemistry teacher at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, Pa. for the past six years, Wood was determined to infuse his classes with real-world applications. The curriculum he devised brought him a $10,000 award this year from the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, an independent federal agency dedicated to recognizing pioneering individuals. Wood was one of only three high school science educators nationwide to receive the honor.

Rather than hand out traditional “cookbook lab” experiments, Wood prefers to weave a series of labs into a single, purposeful case study. In one developed for students in his AP chemistry class, 10th and 11th graders must analyze a water sample from a former manufacturing site to determine if the location should be remediated as a park. Students, working in small groups for many weeks, decide how many trials are necessary to produce good data. Ultimately they prepare a report and a recommendation, based on federal environmental health standards.

“Chemistry is out there, it’s everywhere,” Wood says. “My goal is to show kids how to use it to understand and solve real-world dilemmas.”—Mary Jo Patterson