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Online newspaper of Altoona Area High School in Altoona, Pennsylvania
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The Student News Site of Altoona Area High School

Mountain Echo

The Student News Site of Altoona Area High School

Mountain Echo

‘Chemist’s Tree’ assignment enhances holiday season

Tommy Ford
O Chemist’s Tree. Over Irwin’s 23 years of doing this assignment, she has taken many of her students’ ornaments home with her. “Once I retire, one of the trees in my house is going to be like my own ‘Chemist’s Tree’ of previous years,” Irwin said. “I’ll remember that and cherish that for the rest of my life.”

More often than not, the life of a high school student consists of completing worksheets with predetermined answers. Chemistry teacher Paula Irwin believes that creative-minded people rarely get to display their talents in a traditional classroom setting despite finding that creative expression goes a long way in keeping their kids engaged with academic material. 

“Chemistry is very heavy in the math department,” Irwin said. “This allows my students to get bonus points for their creativity. It engages the more creative students, and I can tell who really gets into it.”

For 23 years, Irwin has been giving her students the opportunity to create chemistry-themed Christmas ornaments every holiday season. She provides projects like this once a quarter.

“My students pick from a very broad list of chemists and other scientists,” Irwin said. “There are available scientists from every field, and the students get to design an ornament based on the work of the person they choose.”

Some popular choices year after year include Oppenheimer’s atomic bomb, Galvani’s frog legs and Schrodinger’s cat. 

“Every now and then, some of these chemists have done so many things that students will make something that I didn’t even know about,” Irwin said. “They’ll bring in different things and I’ll get different varieties or different interpretations of what the student thinks. It’s very interesting, and I really like it.”

Lighting up the tree. Sophomore Gabrielle Filer created an ornament inspired by chemist Henri Moissan. It resembles fluorine, the chemical element that Moissan became famous for discovering. (Tommy Ford)

Irwin understands the importance of student engagement, and she takes as many opportunities as she can to provide her students with unique ways to study important classroom subjects. 

“In the first project of the year, they make 20-sided dice,” Irwin said. “They sign up for an element and make an icosahedron, which is a 20-sided geometric shape, and on each side of it, they include different factors of the element they picked. Some of them get creative and make them out of some really unique substances.”

Students in the past have created these icosahedrons by welding them out of iron, crocheting them or simply using poster boards that Irwin provides. She does what she can to make ambitious ideas accessible to her classes. 

“I always tell them when we do projects like this that if they need assistance of any kind, any specific materials or something like that they are looking for, just let me know,” Irwin said. “I might have it here, or I would be willing to pick something up for them. I never expect anyone to have to come up with the money for these projects themselves.”

Irwin has a clear passion for creating an inclusive and engaging environment for students of all kinds. After 23 years, she has every intention to continue this unique assignment to brighten up the chemistry classroom during the holiday season.

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    Paula IrwinDec 14, 2023 at 1:09 pm

    Tommy – You did an excellent job on this story. Thanks for sharing my student’s project on Mountain Echo. ❤️