Coach’s Corner: A Conversation with ISA Science Coach Debbie Smithey

By Abner Oakes

ISA's Director of Outreach


(Debbie Smithey joined the ISA team in 2017. She was a science educator in the Philadelphia school district for 39 years, teaching all levels and types of high school science. She was a Yale National Initiative Fellow in 2010 and 2011 and served on the national steering committee in 2011 and 2012. She was a member of the Penn Science Teacher Institute in 2007 and 2008 and served as its teacher at large in 2010. Debbie received her bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University and her master’s degree from Temple University and has completed all of the coursework for her doctorate at Temple University. Currently she is an adjunct professor at Pennsylvania Institute of Technology teaching biology and chemistry to nursing students.)

First, what led you into education and specifically working in the realm of science? 

It was my former teachers and school administrators who pointed me to teaching. I was the student who’d always visit my former high school teachers during breaks from college. When I graduated from college at the age of 19, I went back to my former high school to visit, and the school principal, my former physical education teacher, said to me, “Debbie, I know that you just graduated from college with a degree in biology, and we need a biology teacher for the upcoming school year.” Keep in mind that I never had any education courses as an undergraduate. 

So I started teaching students who were older than I was, but it didn’t really matter. Because I grew up in the neighborhood and went to school with their older siblings, my students assumed that I was the same age as those older siblings. I knew my subject content, I followed the district’s curriculum guide, and I modeled my discipline practices on those of my favorite high school teacher and my mother: respectful, firm, and honest. I also made a lot of home visits since I lived in the neighborhood and did home visitations for the 39 years that I was in the classroom.  

I got into science because other subjects did not hold my interest. I asked for a chemistry set when I was nine and would conduct my own experiments throughout the house. But that kind of intellectual freedom was encouraged in our home. My mother was a single parent and did not remarry until I was 32. Early on, she sat me and my sisters down and told us her plan: We were going to college, and she was not going to pay for it. For this to happen, she said, we had to maintain excellent grades. I’m so thankful that my mother had a plan and helped us enact it. I learned that if you study hard and get As, you can get a free education.  

What do most schools get wrong about science teaching and learning? 

Most schools get science teaching wrong because they don’t make it fun and focused on the students. Science is a subject that cries out for being student-centered. In the field of science, you learn by doing; in the field of science, you learn from your mistakes. This is what the scientific method is all about. If you try something and it doesn’t work, you raise questions, make modifications, conduct the experiment again, and review the new data. This is what is happening right now in the world, as scientists try to secure a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus by conducting many experiments and collecting data.  

No doubt, in these last few months, you’ve seen some dynamite virtual teaching. What best practices have you seen in science classes that you want all science teachers undertaking? 

I want teachers to feel free allowing their students to get involved in virtual labs, an excellent learning experience for the students. This generation loves to play electronic games; let’s use that love to our advantage. I also ask teachers to remind their students that they might not get the desired results at the start, but it’s important to figure out why that happened and determine next steps. What are factors that led to those initial results? What can students do to alter and improve them? How can students redesign an experiment to get new and potentially desired results?  

I still remember several of my science teachers from middle and high school. I will never forget Mr. Mungiguerra, who taught me chemistry. Think back to your own teaching days, Debbie, and a special bond you had with a student or a class. What made it special? For you and your students, what made the learning work? 

I have many classes where special bonds were formed, and one thing that I found extremely important was that I would always get my students involved in some type of summer project. In fact, many of my students have been involved in research programs at colleges and medical schools in Philadelphia. Although my students wanted to get summer jobs, I was able to set up internships that paid them – far more than flipping burgers at a fast-food restaurant – and that were situated in labs of Philly area colleges. These summer experiences have paid off; several of my former students are science teachers and physicians. My greatest joy, though, was when one of my students was named a Gates Millennium Scholar.