A dozen Blair students with a passion for biology and chemistry are investigating human physiology in an upper-level honors science course taught by Joseph Wagner.
As the class explores the basics of macromolecules, protein structure and function (particularly in the context of enzymes), molecules genetics, and the regulation of protein synthesis, Mr. Wagner emphasizes the importance of deeply understanding and being able to articulate course content to others outside the classroom, as well as identifying real-world applications and relevance in their work.
“The acquisition of understanding rather than knowledge is invaluable in the life sciences and to growth as science students,” said Mr. Wagner, who joined Blair’s faculty in 2014 after earning his undergraduate degree in biology from Hamilton College. “So often, students are lost in the quagmire of scientific jargon and can’t see the forest because of the trees. I want students to put their coursework into context—to simply see that what they are studying matters and understand why it matters.”
Topics Covered & On the Horizon
At the start of the year, the class studied the ways in which structure implies function, particularly as it relates to the three-dimensional shape of proteins. They then turned their attention to the flow of cell information that originates with DNA, which allows us to synthesize proteins. Once students finish examining the structural differences between hemoglobin and myoglobin and connecting that to their function as oxygen delivery and storage, respectively, in the human body, they will spend the last few months of the year exploring the heavily controlled process of protein synthesis and principles of thermodynamics as they relate to metabolization of carbohydrates, proteins and lipids.
Intended for juniors and seniors looking to pursue science in college, Mr. Wagner designed biochemistry honors to give students a preview of the rigorous content to which they will be exposed as undergraduates. The course culminates in a capstone research project, and the class will share their results with the rest of the Blair community at the School’s annual spring Science Poster Expo, which mimics a professional scientific conference.
“Given Blair's role as a preparatory institution, the poster session fosters the development of the skills necessary to engage with higher-level science at the undergraduate level,” explained Mr. Wagner, who also serves as housemaster of Freeman Hall and head baseball coach. “Students are often asked to present research of value, so it is necessary for our students to understand how to convey their work to an audience with no prior knowledge of their experiment.”
Developing Critical Skills
Mr. Wagner’s commitment to deepening students’ knowledge and helping them develop those skills is one of the reasons his class is so popular. Hai Phan ’19 calls him “a great and caring teacher” who knows how to make difficult topics easy to understand, doesn’t hesitate to stop his lectures for questions and allows students time to digest the material. “Mr. Wagner always makes the class fun, but informative,” said Hai, whose favorite topic studied so far has been enzyme kinetics. “He is a great role model for students because he is passionate about learning and appreciates the beauty of biology.”
Beyond biology and the classroom, Mr. Wagner is also known for his care of students in other parts of Blair life. “He tries to relate to us on a personal level, which allows us to be more comfortable in the classroom to ask questions and share our opinions,” said Matt Tung ’19. “He is my favorite teacher at Blair, and I will miss being part of his class next year.”
Solving Real-World Problems
In addition to appreciating Mr. Wagner’s help in mastering course material, students have found they are sharpening their ability to apply what they have learned in the classroom to real-world problems. “Instead of asking questions that have straightforward answers, Mr. Wagner always strives to present us with complicated situations that require us to not only know the material by heart, but also be able to deduce real-world solutions using logical reasoning,” said Hai, who cited the opportunity to investigate how genetic mutations cause Rett Syndrome as one example.
Other students have found biochemistry honors has given them the confidence to teach their peers. Alex Kirby ’20, Sarika Pyreddy ’19 and Matt credit their group projects—teaching a freshman biology classes about DNA replication and other topics—with helping them to explain complex scientific principles and theories to a lay audience. “This task was more challenging than I initially expected and gave me a greater respect for teachers everywhere,” said Matt, whose favorite course material has focused on spontaneity and Gibbs Free Energy. “Now, I feel more confident sharing things I've learned with younger students.”
“Mr. Wagner does a great job of varying the way we learn,” said Alex. “Instead of always taking tests, we do labs and presentations. I can apply what I know in a different way and use that knowledge to teach others.”