At the start of his third year as a sophomore biology teacher, Mitchell Benjamin is no stranger to student apathy. But he’s developed a way to get kids’ attention. He starts by asking them why they’re in the classroom.
“I get a variety of answers, and I ask a follow-up question,” Benjamin said. “‘No. Why are you actually here, in this seat right now? Why is biology a class that’s taught at the high school level?’
Then, he walks the class through history.
 “‘We’ll talk about Genghis Khan and how many people he killed. We’ll talk about World War II and how many people it killed. Those are important historical moments. However, how many people did the Spanish Flu kill? How many people did the Black Death kill? Was it more or less than these wars?”
For Benjamin, an environmental science researcher turned high school teacher, teaching science isn’t just a passion, it’s a societal necessity.
 “When it comes to understanding the world, it’s important to understand history, but understanding how life works is the best way to figure out the best way to preserve it,” Benjamin said. “Without that knowledge, you’re basically lost.”
Benjamin spent his Master’s doing extensive research in Sweden on lichens’ DNA with a team lead by Ioana Onut-Brännström at Uppsala University. His findings will be published in the science journal Nature. He said that for him, teaching is about giving his students the skills to think critically about everything from diseases to advancing technology to job automation.      
“More than anything, what I want them to do is go on to college, get a good education, and I want them to be able to do all the stuff I did if they so choose to.”
This year, the school bought new, badly-needed AP biology textbooks and lab equipment.
 “My students were learning from books that were ten years old and falling apart and we didn’t have lab equipment,” Benjamin said. “My students who did pass the AP final were able to go to that without running a single lab. This year we have all of the labs up and operational.”
His effort, along with the school’s, seems to be paying off. ACS students’ AP biology test scores have seen slow, but steady improvement.
 “Science curriculum requirements knock out so many students who go on to college,” Benjamin said. “Our [college] dropout rate of students coming from this school is actually fairly high, and math and science are partly the reason why.”
Sometimes the material poses other challenges. Even though evolution is part of the required course curriculum, students, and even parents, sometimes balk. Benjamin said he’s had students drop out of his AP class over the issue, which makes college prep more difficult.
“I want 100 percent of my students to be college capable,” Benjamin said. “I’m more afraid of the students saying ‘The sciences were too hard and that’s why they dropped out of college’ than I am of a student saying ‘I can’t accept this because of religious beliefs.’”