By Katie Dickerson (Faculty Advisor)
Four years ago, Sonia Chin sat across from me holding an unidentifiable wood and plexiglass contraption. We were at a new employee retreat and we’d been told to bring something that represented a chapter of our lives that brought us to Friends’ Central. While others spoke about beloved books or objects they’d had since childhood, Sonia explained how she’d built mobile phone microscopes for a science outreach stand she’d started at a Baltimore farmer’s market: “They’re made from cheap parts that are virtually unbreakable, and they let you take pictures with a 30x magnification on a mobile phone.” That moment demonstrated much of what I’ve come to learn and appreciate about Sonia, like her ingenuity and her belief that science should be accessible for everyone.
Now, Sonia is moving to Texas to be closer to family and to teach biology and chemistry at Greenhill School. I was grateful for the opportunity to sit down with her and reflect on her time at Friends’ Central.
When asked what she has loved about her time at FCS, Sonia immediately said, “The kids. They’re really motivated, amazing kids. This is my first teaching experience and they’ve been forgiving and generous with me, and that’s a gift.” She also spoke highly of her colleagues: “Our colleagues are really interesting people. In general, the teachers are very curious. They like learning about others, and they care about other people. That curiosity is not always present in every environment.”
These answers aren’t surprising from Sonia, whose teaching practices are driven by the same traits she praises in others: experimentation, change, reflection, curiosity, and care. When asked whether her teaching philosophy has changed over her time at FCS, Sonia said, “The philosophy hasn’t changed but the way I execute it has changed. It’s a function of experimentation and learning on the job. That’s been one of the great things about FCS and the science department [here]: I’ve been able to experiment with different [ways of teaching]. I’m still doing what I came into teaching to do-- to teach people about the process of doing science and how to think about science in their daily lives to make better decisions--but I’ve found better and different ways of doing that.” Sonia spoke specifically about Superlab, which she called “a learning curve.” She said, “It’s different from your average class because it involves a lot more freedom. It involves imagination and creativity to figure out how to structure [the course] to make it most valuable. It’s very scientific, very trial and error, in order to figure out how to make it work.”
Sonia attributes this culture of flexibility in teaching methods and curricula to the fact that “the people in the Science Department have real-world science experience. The scientific expertise level of our department is amazing. It changes the way we can teach science. That real-world experience contributes to a more rigorous way of thinking and allows [the teachers] to teach in a more meaningful way, more like the way you’d really use science.” Flexibility and creativity came up in our discussion of Sonia’s new role next year: “I’ll be teaching general bio rather than AP. I don’t want to teach AP because I find the idea of teaching to a test to be really obnoxious. AP, especially for biology, tends to be memorization-heavy.” When asked to elaborate, Sonia said, “Here’s an illustration. I sat in on an AP Bio class recently. When they were studying for the exam, a student asked, ‘What do I need to know about the atoms in these chemical structures?’ The teacher answered, ‘You just need to know that nitrogens are in proteins and carbohydrates have oxygen in them.’ At FCS, we would talk about what the atoms are actually doing in the molecules. If you have a creative science department, you can do better, and I think we have that at FCS.”
This freedom around teaching and learning is something Sonia has been grateful for at Friends’ Central. “I’ll miss the students and the organic-ness of [their experience],” she said. “We have flexibility around the curriculum that can be really freeing and lets students explore their own interests. It’s more self-driven than a lot of other places.” She continued, “I’ll also miss [the Asian Student Association]. The ASA students here are really amazing. What group of students is organized and motivated enough to [run a conference] every year? Every year there have been students that have shown up and consistently committed to the work despite being very, very busy.” Speaking of being busy, Sonia also said she’d miss Meeting for Worship and “the gift of time during the week to sit in silence and reflect. It doesn’t happen a lot as an adult, and it’s easy to take for granted. People don’t recognize how rare it is to have the luxury of time to sit, think, and reflect.”
When asked what parting advice Sonia had for her students and colleagues at Friends’ Central, she said, “Take opportunities that help you think better. Put yourself in environments that help you develop your thinking. I tell that to students sometimes when they’re thinking about where to go to college. The prestige of the place you’re at doesn’t matter as long as you find the people who help you to develop and think better. That will always serve you down the line.” Thank you, Sonia, for being a person who has helped us develop and think better. We will miss you!