Teacher Gives Obama the Skinny on Packed Science Labs

Close quarters. President Barack Obama discussed crowded classes with Nevada school teachers, including Lori Henrickson (left).

Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun

This week, Lori Henrickson lived the dream of every volunteer in a presidential campaign. A science teacher at Del Webb Middle School in Henderson, Nevada, Henrickson was selected to talk about her profession with President Barack Obama as he made a campaign swing through Las Vegas.

Her 25-minute sit-down was a thrill, admits Henrickson, 27, who began volunteering for Obama this summer as she finished her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction and who makes no attempt to hide her enthusiasm for improving science education. She says this week’s experience ranks right up there with meeting Bill Nye the Science Guy at a regional meeting of the National Science Teachers Association in Phoenix. "I was more nervous meeting President Obama," she confesses. "But Bill Nye was pretty cool, too. It was so neat."

Obama used his Las Vegas visit to tout what his Administration has done to raise student achievement, make college more affordable, and promote lifelong learning, as well as to hammer the education record of his opponent, Republican Mitt Romney. But the time he spent with Henrickson and two other teachers from the Clark County School District was devoted to learning about the problems they face in the classroom.

And Henrickson gave the president an earful. She described the double whammy of trying to keep materials in stock for hands-on lessons in meteorology, astronomy, geology, and the other topics that she covers at the same time class sizes are increasing.

"Am I going to have enough supplies?" she told Obama. "That's one thing. If I have big class sizes, am I going to have enough supplies to make those groups work?"

Speaking later with ScienceInsider, Henrickson said that her principal "was very supportive" but that there’s only so much she can do. "We do a lot of rock and soil samples, we measure relative humidity and dew point, and we study star maps," she says. "They keep cutting our budget for supplies, and when we run out it’s hard to get replacements."

She won’t know until school starts next week how many students will be in each of her five science classes. But she's been told to prepare for anywhere from 34 to 37. "So we just have to get creative and hope that things last." This year, for example, she’s hoping to use the regular Twitter feeds from NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars to supplement the earth sciences curriculum. "They're quick and witty," she says about the 140-word dispatches.

Henrickson even got up-close-and-personal during her meeting with the president, making a reference to Malia, his 14-year-old daughter. In fact, Obama immediately empathized with her daily challenges. "Imagine 40 … [students] in one room for 50 minutes, and I need to teach them," she told him. "It's frightening," he replied.

That exchange made enough of an impression on the nation’s commander-in-chief to incorporate it into his talk, which otherwise repeated themes from previous education stump speeches. "Have you ever met a teacher who said, 'You know what, I have too few kids in my class, I want a lot more kids?' " he said to the packed audience in the gym at Canyon Springs High School. Then he delivered the punch line: "Anybody ever try to be [in a room] with 38 13- or 14-year-olds?"