Tom Heilman teaches IB Chemistry and Biology for St. Stephen’s.  He was born in Pittsburgh, and received his Bachelor of Science degree from Juniata College. Tom says, “While there one of my professors changed my life by introducing me to the microbial world. I completed my senior year of college in medical technology school, specializing in clinical microbiology.” Tom went on to work for ten years as the head of clinical microbiology departments at several Pittsburgh area hospital labs.  He would go on to graduate studies, receiving his Master’s degree from Central Michigan University and a Ph.D. at Texas A&M.  Tom has taught at several universities and eventually left that work to teach high school full time, first in Arkansas and then Texas where he relocated in 2009.

Since coming to St. Stephen’s Tom has lent his expertise to building our IB science program.  This year he won the Wilhelmina C. Robertson Excellence in Science Teaching Award, and a few weeks ago took the Beta Club (honor society) to the Texas Beta Club Convention, where two of his students won first place.  I spoke with a Tom about these experiences recently.

Much of your previous teaching experience has been at the university level.  Have you found teaching high school to be a big adjustment?

At first the change to public school was not pleasant. Fortunately I moved to a small Arkansas School District where I was district science chair and the high school science department. That worked out. I then spent a year at the Arkansas School for Math, Science and the Arts. The students there were easy to teach and there were no “classroom management” issues. Then I moved to Houston with the intent to retire, but my wife told me to go to work. Two years at a large public school cured me of that and since them I have been teaching in private schools where your job is teaching and notmanaging people who don’t want to be there. I do not teach much differently here than I did as a professor. 

This year you won the Wilhelmina C. Robertson Excellence in Science Teaching Award.  The award cited, among other qualities, “engaging classroom activities.”  What have you found to be the most effective, and fun, activities to use in the classroom?  

When students solve a problem by themselves in a group, they learn that planning and teamwork is important and you can’t teach that in a lecture setting. I, and my students, enjoy labs so I try to work that in as much as possible. In my opinion, labs generate more understanding and knowledge per unit time than any other type of instructional strategy. I frequently ask “What did you learn from that?” They are often surprised by the answer.

Just a couple of weeks ago our students took part in the Texas Beta Club Convention and two of them won first place prizes.   You mentioned to me before that this was the first team you took to Beta competition that won. How was that experience for you as a mentor, and what comes next for the winners?  

This was my fourth Beta Club convention, I have sponsored three clubs. This is the first year a club of mine had entered the competition aspect of the convention. The biggest issues were following the rules, getting there on time with your work or you brain functioning. Much easier than any other club trip. Previously we ran candidates (and lost!) Competitions are easier than running a candidate (which consumes your entire club for a half a year and is very expensive) Believe me it is much better to win than to lose!  St. Stephens has many bright and talented students, but the Beta kids are the best of the best. Competition was stiff, but the cream does rise to the top. I am really proud of our two winners.  I have talked with them and each plans to go to New Orleans to compete at the National Beta Club Convention in June.  We can keep our fingers crossed, because I’m sure the level of competition will be even higher there.

Tom announced earlier in the week that he will be leaving St. Stephen's next year.  Currently he has no plans other than to travel more and spend time with his family.  Tom's work here has been greatly appreciated; he will leave us with a strong foundation for our science program into the future.