SOI Educator Q&A with Anna Abella

The expedition may be over, but we have two more educators to hear from! Anna Abella is no stranger to SOI, she joined us along with a team of students from the school where she teacher, the International School of Zug and Luzern, on the Arctic expedition back in 2013!


What are you looking forward to the most during expedition?


This is a hard question, lots of things!!
Anna during the SOI Arctic 2013 expedition

Anna during the SOI Arctic 2013 expedition

I am looking forward to getting to know the students and spending time with them. I am sure there will be plenty of exceptional and passionate students that have so many ideas, strengths and visions that will amaze me. They think they come to learn from us the educators, but I think we get as much from them as they do from us.


I am also of course looking forward to meet the rest of the educators and staff. Some of them I know from the Arctic 2013 expedition and I cannot wait to see them again, others will be new encounters and I am sure that some will become life long friends as it happened in the past.


Aside of all the “human power” there is also of course the natural world that we shortly will be discovering. I cannot wait till we see the first wildlife, and the ice of the Antarctic, the immense ocean and the never setting sun.
I am sure we are in for a treat and I am extremely excited about all that is about to happen; even of the things I cannot yet even imagine.


How did you make the decision to focus your career on teaching rather than research?


Research is what I wanted to do when I was at university and what I worked really hard for during my undergraduate years.
I managed to get a grant to start research as part of my PhD and I really enjoyed it. I spent 5 years at the university of Barcelona, researching on the field of diabetes and the biochemistry of fat cells. During that time, I also took my teaching certificate, which against all expectations I loved; and spent some time teaching first and third year biology university students during their practical lessons, which I also loved.

Photo contributed by Anna Abella

Photo contributed by Anna Abella

Truth be told, when I was in high-school, my favourite subject was mathematics and the only reason I did not go to university to study maths, but chemistry as a start, was because the only career path I saw at that time if I was to study maths was teaching and I absolutely didn’t want to become a teacher!


So I went into chemistry, then I directed my studies into biochemistry and as I said I worked very hard to get that grant and start the PhD.


After I finished my PhD on biochemistry and molecular biology I was offered a post as a post-doc in Montpellier, France; still working with fat cells but more focused on cancer. I spend almost two years at the research institute in France, researching with no teaching involved.


It is there when I realized that something was missing in my work. My research went really well and I published a very good article (Cdk4 promotes adipogenesis through PPAR? activation, Abella et. al. Cell biology, Vol 2, p239–249, Oct 2005) but something was not totally fulfilling me and I started to wonder what that might be. During the time I was there I had not taught, was it possible that I missed teaching, I wondered? I missed the interaction with the students, their eager to learn, their enthusiasm and the opportunity they gave me to help them discover the wonderful world of science and biology.
Photo contributed by Anna Abella

Photo contributed by Anna Abella

And thus I decided to take a year off research and go into teaching full-time, just for a year and see how I felt. And I have just started my 10th year of teaching. That year quickly became two, then three, and here I am, on my 10th year and loving it! Each year, each class, is unique and incredible enriching.


I love the interaction with the students and helping them learn and discover. I have found my passion and I am happy I can say that I am able to do it as my job.


What are your thoughts on experiential learning and getting students into nature?
I wish experimental learning was the only way students learn. School, or better said, the examination process, is still very “old-fashion”, based on written tests and often on just one-day performance. Luckily many schools, particularly at younger ages, have change the way of teaching, which has become much more student, and not teacher, centered, based on inquiry and experiential learning.


I teach mainly biology and integrated science. Experimental learning is for me the only way, experimenting is what science is mostly about in the “real/working” world, so what else should we be doing?


Moreover, lots of studies show that the majority of students that we teach will be doing jobs that do not exist today. We need to teach them problem solving and critical thinking and through experimenting these skills could be developed and practiced.


Not all experimenting and learning could be done inside the four walls of our classrooms and lab, in science there is a huge part that involves our natural world, so what could be better that getting the students out there? Seeing it with their eyes, hearing it with their ears and touching it with their hands; these sensorial experiences do not only make it real but also more relevant and I believe that this way have a much greater impact and resonance.


I really believe in learning by doing, anything that is done rather that just listened or even read will stick, will become real and relevant.


Tell me a bit about your science blog and what prompted you to start it?


DrAbella’s blog is a project that I started this year and which is still under development.


I was inspired by one of the new teachers that joined our school this year (Patricia Friedman, an ADE, Apple Distinguished Educator). Patricia is extremely knowledgeable about using technology to support teaching, she has an educational blog herself.


I decided to start the blog mainly for my students, there is so much that we do everyday in class and many of the things that happen are done by the students, learning by doing as I mentioned. This needed to be celebrated and somehow recorded so we could revisited it.


I decided to create the blog, separated into the different classes I teach, and post there mainly pictures and videos that I take whilst students work. I though that this way they could go back to what they did, see themselves doing it, and remember what they have learned with all the different experiments, demonstrations, projects and activities that we do.


The blog also includes references and links to some educational resources I think should be useful to my students in their revision or for those willing to further explore scientific concepts; some that we study in class, but others that we will never cover.


As I said, I have just started it last September and I have lots to learn about blogging and making it useful for my students, or anybody that decides to look at it. It is a challenge for me and a rich learning experience.


I have it linked to a YouTube channel and twitter  which I have also started this year, very exciting…!!!


I would like to share two things about the blog that happened this year and made me kind of proud:


One day with the AP Biology class with whom we were studying evolution, we started talking about animals able to live in extreme conditions and one student mentioned about a frog that can almost freeze itself in winter time but then comes back to life. It happened that the night before I was reading a book were this same example was explained. The students asked for more details and I decided to post for them the pages of the book that covered the topic. I scanned the pages and when doing it I was concerned about copyright laws and making it public. I decided to do it anyway making sure I mentioned the book and the author. To my surprise that same evening the author had favourited my tweet and re-tweeted the feed; I was amazed and so were the students.


The author was not worried about copyright laws, but about sharing knowledge and reflecting on it. The book is “Survival of the Sickest” and the author Dr. Sharon Moalem, I really recommend this excellent read.


The second thing I want to share is that I was surprisingly nominated for Best New Blog 2014 at Edubogs Awards 2014 (#eddies14, @edublogs) something I did not expected. I ended up third out of the 31 nominees, which I also did not expected, which has made me want to continue learning about blogging and improve the blog.
Anna and her students during the SOI Arctic 2013 expedition

Anna and her students during the SOI Arctic 2013 expedition


What do you hope the students will take away from this expedition, and is there something you hope to learn? 


Again a hard question as I hope that they will take away a lot!


It maybe sounds cliché but it is a “once in a lifetime experience” for them and they will be able to experience so much and learn so much from one another, the educators that accompany them and the natural world that we will be surrounding us. I am sure strong relations will be built, and I hope that life long friendships will be created. Maybe for some of them this will be an opportunity to decide what they want to continue studying or focus their careers on.


They will also learn about themselves, being in a new environment, on a ship for a long time, away from home for New Year’s Eve and surrounded by amazing nature and wildlife. This trip is a gift of enormous value for each single one of them.


And for me, as I said before, I hope to learn from and with the students. About themselves, the other educators, the other educators’ areas of expertise and the nature than I will be discovering. Ah! And this year I am taking with me a little painting kit, that will be a skill for me to work on ;)!


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