Falguni Soni, science department chairman at Rosary High School in Aurora, is passionate about science, and education, and science education. Especially for girls.
Soni, who has always wanted to be a teacher, credits her mother, who is a teacher. "My mom was adamant: 'My girls will have a good education,'" Soni said. "Education gives you power and confidence."
And Soni is passing that on to her chemistry, organic chemistry and robotics students at Rosary, an all-girl Catholic school where she has taught for eight years.
"From childhood I wanted to be a teacher. I think that it is my thing," the 48-year-old resident of Wood Dale said.
She also wants to break the stereotype that science isn't for girls. And a single-sex school such as Rosary is a great place to do that, she believes, as the girls are not influenced by subtle societal pressures in coeducational schools to not develop their affinity for male-dominated topics in science, technology and engineering, according to Soni.
"She is about making the world a better place through your education," Jenna Streich, a junior from Aurora, said. In other words, it isn't enough to know something; you are expected to put that knowledge to good use, for the benefit of others.
Streich said it isn't easy being one of Soni's students. "You realize that Ms. Soni probably is one of the hardest teachers I have ever had," Streich said.
Soni knows that.
"I hope to be a role model for these girls," Soni said.
But first, she has to fan their interest in science.
Curiosity is key
"I have to make it fun and interesting," she said.
A unit on acids and bases is her favorite. She also likes demonstrating stoichiometry, the calculation of reactants and products in chemical reactions. It is a very visual presentation, as indicators in the substance change color. "It's like magic," she said.
Junior Caroline Mejia of Aurora recalled a favorite lab, when Soni had her chemistry students develop hand warmers. Seeing the practical application has gotten her thinking about a career in science.
Soni is fond of telling her students that a degree in chemistry gives them flexibility, because the world will always need chemists and chemical engineers.
Gone are the days of chemistry classes where a teacher just lectures, and then you do an experiment. Soni asks the students to think creatively. She tells them to think as if they were the teacher, and come up with the hardest question that teacher would expect them to answer. Then, they go after that answer. That engages them in their study, she said. That includes having students design some of the laboratory experiments.
Her own curiosity led to the introduction of a robotics course at Rosary. Soni attended a seminar on the topic at the nearby Illinois Math and Science Academy, and suggested Rosary offer a class. When her supervisors agreed, she asked who would do it, and was told, "You do it." She began studying robotics instruction online through Carnegie Mellon University two years ago.
"I like the building of ideas," she said. It is also a creative endeavor; one of her best students was more interested in art than science, she pointed out.
The hands-on nature of robotics changes girls' outlook on the idea of pursuing careers in chemistry or chemical engineering, she said. They see the practical applications. And it gives mathematics skills a workout, as they have to solve problems such as calculating the distance of a certain movement, given the size of the wheel involved on a machine.
More math, science
And those mathematics skills need work, Soni said. She lamented the lack of focus on mathematics and science in lower grades in American schools.
It puts her students at a disadvantage when it comes time to take chemistry.
"We need better basic math skills," she said, including the ability of students to perform calculations in their head instead of having to use a calculator.
American schools also have to encourage students to take more science classes; students should be able to take two at a time, she said, rather than the standard one.
"That has to change," she said.
And students' aptitude for science has to be recognized when they are freshmen, to allow them to take those extra classes, she said.
"It's a big challenge. I'm trying my best," Soni said.
Girls vs. boys
There is a gleam in her eye when she talks about the Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering team she coaches. At competitions, the team is always in the top five in chemistry, she said.
"We beat Marmion (Academy), and that is the most fun," she exclaimed. Marmion is an all-boys Catholic school in Aurora, and the two pair up for plays, band and social activities.
In the latest competition, the first- through third-place competitors were Rosary students, she said.
"It's really funny, her competitiveness," said Streich, a member of the team.
"She is one of the most passionate teachers I have ever had."
And her passion isn't confined to science.
"There are just some times she is talking (about a chemistry topic), and she'll just automatically switch and give out some life advice. … She has a really perceptive mind and sits back and looks at the world in a deep way and expresses that through the way she teaches," Streich said.
Hearing that should please Soni.
"I drive 34 miles one way (to work) because I really want to be here and make a difference in my students' lives."