Geneva teacher teaches science with storytelling, characters
Sporting a wig, mustache and a southern accent, Matt Gain tries to find fun ways to make science more interesting to his students.
Gain, 46, who has taught eighth-grade chemistry and physics at Geneva Middle School South for 17 years, adopts the fictional persona of "Mr. Pickens," a chicken farmer from South Carolina, a few times during the school year. He incorporates storytelling into his lessons to make them interesting and memorable.
Pickens dresses up in different costumes and challenges students with research projects, such as creating toothpick bridges, mousetrap cars, weather reports for his make-believe Chicken News Network, analyzing crystal formation, and engaging in egg wars.
"He's just fun," said Gain, who was named the top 2017 Kane County Educator of the Year. "Whenever you can kind of mix things up in the classroom ... he gives them a real-world problem (to solve)."
Gain hopes to inspire the same fascination for science he developed at an early age by tinkering with anything he could get his hands on, taking apart the telephone or stereo when his parents were out.
"What interests me most about science is the idea of really exploring our world, getting a real understanding of ... how intricate it is. There is so much more going on, and to be able to appreciate that," he said.
Gain previously taught biology and anatomy at Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox, Illinois, and Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville before joining Geneva Unit District 304 in 2000.
His wife Kerry teaches mathematics to seventh-graders at Geneva Middle School North. He said interacting with middle schoolers "makes each day different and exciting."
"I really like how energetic the kids can get about things," he said. "You can do a demonstration where you are burning a piece of paper and they get excited about it. It's a thin line. If you push the energy up too much, it's hard to get them back. If I'm having fun, they see that and they feed on that."
How science is taught in Illinois schools is changing as part of the state's newly implemented Next Generation Science Standards. The biggest change is science textbooks have become irrelevant and the curriculum primarily is driven by lab work, Gain said.
"We have a classroom set of books but we use them for ramps," Gain said. "(Students) can get this information from so many different sources."
In eighth grade, Gain teaches students about physical science, focusing on thermal energy, weather, chemical reactions, the periodic table, light, sound and motion, and understanding the processes. His approach involves lots of hands-on experiments.
"We teach kids how to connect the dots," he said. "What do the facts mean. Now the lab is how you are teaching. Used to be the lab was for review."
Gain incorporates lessons from latest scientific articles and research on topics, such as green energy, electric cars and solar panels. He plays YouTube clips, TED Talks, and science shows on Netflix in class to help students understand the science behind everyday items they use, such as the chemistry of chocolate, coffee, and the effects of listening to loud music.
"I would love to see science become even more student-centered, in which you can present a problem and the students would have to figure out what they would need to do to test it ... give them a broad topic with some options and let them choose their own experiments," Gain said.
Curriculum vitae: Matt GainAge: 46
Hometown: St. Charles
Occupation: Eighth-grade science teacher at Geneva Middle School South
Awards and honors: 2017 Kane County Educator of the Year
Education: Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Iowa State University; and master's degrees in education focusing on curriculum and instruction, instructional technology, science education and methods from Benedictine University in Lisle.