What Have We Learned

At some point during the haze of the summer, I was invited to participate in the “Holiday Lectures” held annually at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Maryland headquarters. If you are not an extant science teacher, you are probably unaware of what that is. If you are (or have been recently), then you are probably aware of just how cool it is to be invited to such a thing.

So, it was that this past Wednesday (on my 31st birthday), I found myself on a plane to Maryland for a five-day conference and work session marathon. It was a very cool experience. Not only did I get to sit in world-class lectures with world-class lecturers about a world-class topic (Human Evolution), but I then got to work with thirteen other teachers, and a team of very creative folks from HHMI’s educational outreach department to develop curricular materials to supplement the material from the lectures (HHMI distributes the lectures, on DVD, to anyone who asks for them, for free). Like I said above, it was all very cool.

You don’t need me to sit and dwell on the day-to-day minutiae of the process, but I do think it might be fun to run off a list of things that I have learned since arriving at HHMI at noon, Wednesday. So here is a brief list:  

  • “Uncle Howie” is both incredibly loaded, and thankfully dead. An organization which was incepted as a tax shelter for a reclusive billionaire, has benefited from the passing of said billionaire tremendously. I never could find out specific numbers, but HHMI is something like the second most philanthropic organization for biomedical research in the world. They seem to have more money than they know what to do with. This is by no means a complaint. All of my expenses were paid, from my plane tickets to the cab faire. The campus has a functional hotel staffed by thoroughly hotel-esque agency staff. I had a private room with a queen-sized bed. It was cleaned every day. There is a giant cafeteria that serves massive amounts of gourmet food on a round the clock basis. There is always desert. There is a work-out room. There is a bar in the basement with unlimited free drinks.  
  • I will never stop being impressed with how normal scientists are, no matter how famous they might be. Maybe it’s the fact that even the super-famous in scientific circles are still the equivalent of Joe Labcoat to most members of society. Whatever the reason, the fact remains, scientists are the best. You can talk to them about seemingly anything, and they are all as big a geek as you are (if not bigger). Sean Carroll (the EvoDevo version) is the current VP for the institute for education, and I don’t think I ever saw him without a smile on his face and an open ear during the time that he was around this week. Yesterday, I had lunch with the President of the Institute, who splits his time between HHMI and running a functional molecular genetics lab in Berkeley. How these cats keep all those balls in the air simultaneously is well beyond me, but it’s pretty damn awesome that they do. 
  • The staff at HHMI is incredible. They sure know how to treat a guy. The workshop was expertly scheduled and executed with aplomb. Outside of my classroom, I have never worked in an environment where I felt more appreciated. At no time did I want for anything that I thought I might need to get the work done. I got taken out for a Lebanese dinner. I got a tour of the grounds. I got more free schwag than I know what to do with. It’s nice to have a group of incredibly talented people telling you how incredibly talented you are and encouraging your every whim (you almost start to believe it after a while).  
  • Great teachers remain the most impressive people that I have ever had the pleasure of working with. I was one of fourteen teacher guests, and I think it goes without saying that my resume was easily the most unimpressive of the bunch. I simply do not know where people find the time to do the things that they do for their students. This is compounded by the fact that most of these folks are working a whole lot harder for a whole lot less money, and a with whole lot more administrative headache than I have to deal with. If any Long Island teacher ever starts to feel like they are working too hard for the money, let me put them in touch with some of the great people that I met this week.  That should shut them up right quick.

 I think I’ll leave it there. It was a great five days and I loved every second of it. Words can not express the gratitude I feel toward HHMI for the invite (and my district for encouraging me to go), and the awesome peers that I met and got to work with for this week. Though I would be lying if I didn’t say that I am happy to be home in the comfort of my natural environment, reunited with my favorite mammals.