Dr. Ashley Jones: Part of TJ’s Unique Chemistry
In the latest installment of our “Alums Who Never Left” series, Dr. Ashley Jones, TJ ’91, who has taught Chemistry at TJ since 2004, talks about the TJ faculty who inspired her and how she aims to inspire others.
Q: Can you start us off with a biographical digest?
“A member of the TJ Class of 1991, the third class at what was then a recently minted magnet high school, I mixed at TJ with a high concentration of fellow nerds (commiserators in the awkwardness of adolescence and some souls as introverted as I was), stumbled upon passions for chemistry and Latin, and found outlets in choir and literary magazine. In 1995, I graduated from William and Mary with a BS in chemistry and a minor in math. After W&M, I took my education abroad through a formative odyssey of chemistry, history, literature, and French language at Université de Montpellier in France and traveled through Western Europe. I attended graduate school at Cornell University, earning MS and PhD degrees in bioorganic/polymer chemistry. Following a stretch of language and culture studies in Germany, further travels in Europe, and work as a reading and math tutor at an academic skills center in Fairfax, I was hired by FCPS. I spent an eye-opening first year at Falls Church High School in 2003-04, teaching chemistry and representing science faculty on the AVID support team. Since 2004, I have taught and grown at TJ.
Q: When did you first think you wanted to be a teacher and how did that choice come into focus?
“The prospect of becoming a teacher intrigued me since childhood, when I delighted in playing school. This happy pastime centered on inventing ‘lessons’ and immobilizing one or both of my (often reluctant) younger siblings in front of a chalkboard in the rec room. My piano teachers and choir directors also inspired me while helping me develop as a musician, ensemble member, and performer. During college, I spent two summers interning at an education-focused council in Washington, DC, researching state-specific standards for K-12 science education and editing exams that deliver high school equivalency credentials and volunteered as a reading and math tutor for adult learners in the Williamsburg area. However, it was my teaching assistantships at Cornell that crystallized teaching as my professional path. In allocating my energies among absorbing material for my own chemistry courses, conducting thesis research, and teaching general chemistry lab sections, I loved learning more chemistry, debating pedagogy, and striving to make deep concepts accessible. In my mind, teaching is a craft in which connecting with people is the bottom line.
Q: You have been a mentor to so many TJ students. Could you tell us about the TJ science teachers who had an impact on your learning and career path?
“My evolution as a follower of chemistry, from college to graduate school and into the present, continues to be influenced by examples of compelling TJ mentors. Biology had captivated me as a freshman, but I knew almost nothing about chemistry when as a sophomore I walked into a first period Chem I class led by the personable and spirited Omar Acio [Dr. Acio just retired in June 2016]. The beauty of chemistry as a symbolic language, alongside the undeniable logic of stoichiometry, soon exerted an iron grip on my psyche. With whatever measure of cheerful diligence could be mustered in the throes of a grueling TJ junior year, I plowed through A.P. Chem. Shepherded by Charlotte Follansbee, a role model as a woman chemist and as a person, I cherished A.P. Chem for its mileage as an elective that shed light on certain ‘why’ musings from Chem I and drew momentum from classmates who were also avowed chemistry enthusiasts.
“For my senior tech lab, I plunged into what was scheduled in that era as a year-long two-period block package of Chemical Analysis Laboratory coupled with Introductory Organic Chemistry. John Liebermann was the legendary master of the Chem Analysis Lab, a realm that students affectionately dubbed ‘Lieberland.’ He worked tirelessly to immerse TJers in college-level chemistry, from lectures to labor-intensive problem sets and tough exams to multi-stage experiments and lengthy lab reports that regularly necessitated spectral characterization of chemical substances. ‘Lieberland’ was an atmosphere in which the abilities and talents of TJ students were honored and nurtured through demanding chemistry inquisitions, day-in and day-out, including after-school and summer avenues for extended work on research projects for science competitions. Dr. Liebermann exhibited a drive to diversify his own command of chemistry and pedagogy through currency with technical literature, a commitment to upholding rigorous expectations for student learning and achievement, an uncanny intuition for decrypting and responding to individual attributes of learners (from brilliant to unremarkable to skeptical), an inimitable wit, and a disarming sense of humor. He left an enduring impression.
“I happened to be completing my inaugural FCPS year at Falls Church HS when Charlotte Follansbee was nearing retirement at TJ. Her advocacy was key to my obtaining a transfer interview. At that time, it was not an inevitable decision for me to make the move from Falls Church HS to TJ. I was younger than most TJ faculty then, and concerned about handling the needs of vocal and precocious TJ learners. Responsibilities threatened to be daunting, with daily lessons and lab preps, 8th period involvement, and a potential deluge of requests for recommendation letters for summer internships and college apps. At the same time, I felt drawn toward the unique chance to dive into dialogue and scholarship — on chemistry and larger learning — in a modern incarnation of the setting where I first met chemistry. Ultimately, burning curiosity outweighed apprehensions.
Q: What is the best part about teaching at TJ?
“Through twelve years of teaching chemistry at TJ as well as sponsoring Chemistry Society and Red Cross Youth Task Force during 8th period, I have been blessed to work with sharp and inquisitive teenagers who pose thought-provoking questions about chemistry and about life. Students’ relentless inquiries and optimism with regard to innovations in STEM domains push me to persevere with learning and communicating, crusades that I treasure, and to gain insights from the wisdom of faculty colleagues.
Q: Only a tiny fraction of your students will use chemistry in their future jobs. What do you hope that students get from your classes?
“Among the most fulfilling dimensions of teaching at TJ has been my effort to bolster links between Chem I and A.P. Chem. I constantly revisit how to tackle each level of chemistry by contextualizing fundamentals in the elementary course and overarching principles and extensions in the elective college-level course. Chemistry learners tend to confront obstacles in transitioning from macroscopic to particulate to symbolic representations. I relish dreaming up concept-based mnemonics, lessons, labs, and whiteboard visualizations that integrate structural models of molecules, particle drawings, and vocabulary hooks to reinforce ‘big ideas’ that recur as themes.
“‘Chemophobia’ has arisen as a disturbing malady in the general public, and chemistry disciples have a duty to articulate how the creative endeavors of chemists and chemical engineers foster improvements in quality of life for people around the globe. Introducing a first-year learner to chemistry as a vast discipline, when Chem I is a core requirement and most TJ students will not pursue chemistry further, is a crucial mission. At the same time, guiding a second-year learner through deeper conceptual investigations in an elective course offers a distinctive echelon of challenge that is stimulating in entirely different ways. I feel motivated by grappling with these dynamic challenges, enjoying the autonomy to design activities and assessments with varied emphases, and attending summer institutes and conferences on chemical education to exchange viewpoints and strategies with university professors and other high school teachers.
“Chemists see chemistry as ‘the central science’ – a far-reaching field that interfaces with and enables progress in biology, physics, environmental science, agriculture, engineering, materials science, informatics, law, economics, public policy, and other spheres. In daily chemistry classes, I aim for TJ students, especially those who will never touch chemistry again, to sample methods that chemists harness to advance frontiers of knowledge about matter, from analysis of chemical data to solving problems through calculations, from posing questions to be addressed by experiments to communicating evidence-based arguments through proficiency in writing and speaking. Critical questions include: How does chemistry illuminate everyday phenomena by means of molecular-based views? How does chemistry marry the descriptive (qualitative) and the numerical (quantitative)? How does chemistry reveal and unite an array of versatile patterns in nature?
“When former students visit TJ or send updates about their academic and professional adventures, I am constantly amazed to learn where curiosity has propelled them, primed with anticipation to witness what they will accomplish next, and gratified at having first encountered these enterprising people ‘way back when’ as young Jeffersonians.”