A Change of Plans

May. 16, 2013

Thomas Bussey always wanted to be a doctor. He was well on his way after interviewing and being accepted to medical school in 2004. But at the same time he also interviewed with Teach for America, a decision that ultimately changed the course of his life.

Had he not interviewed with Teach for America, Bussey wouldn’t have ended up in Las Vegas or at UNLV. Nine years after coming to the valley, Bussey is set to walk across the stage to receive his doctoral degree in chemistry with a chemical education concentration.

Coming to Vegas
Bussey was part of the charter core of Teach for America, a program that takes college graduates and places them in under-resourced or underperforming school districts. He had the choice between an urban setting or a rural area. Since he grew up in rural Wisconsin and attended the University of Wisconsin for an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, he opted for the inner city. He was placed at Desert Pines High School in the heart of Las Vegas.

For five years, Bussey taught biology, earth science, and chemistry at Desert Pines. “This isn’t the path I envisioned, but I fell in love with teaching,” he said. “It was really exciting to be in the classroom sharing what I knew with my students and feeling that I was helping them learn.”

The program also facilitated graduate school, which allowed Bussey to complete his master’s in education from UNLV. Originally, he wanted to teach science teachers to teach science, but came to the realization that he actually wanted to teach science to college students. So he stopped teaching high school in 2009 and returned to UNLV full time, transferring to the chemistry department under the mentorship of professor MaryKay Orgill, an expert in the chemical education field.

More Than a GA
As a graduate assistant, Bussey had a leg up on his peers thanks to his years teaching secondary science. Most graduate students teach only the laboratory sections, something he hasn’t done. Instead he has been teaching a scientific software course for the last several years. Last summer Bussey taught Chemistry 122 and was responsible for all the teaching assistants who taught the lab courses and this summer he will teach a biochemistry course.

His efforts recently earned him the inaugural Outstanding Graduate Student Teaching Award at UNLV. The award is given to graduate students who are instructors of record of UNLV courses (not teaching assistants).

“I have been very fortunate that the department has trusted me to do a lot of teaching, which is unique for a graduate student,” he said. “Teaching is a great feeling as it is really rewarding to see students grasp concepts. I am invested in my students. I don’t want them to just show up, I want them to be an active participant in their educational experience.”

Outside the classroom, Bussey and Orgill have been busy with outreach efforts. They have worked with Clark County School District teachers to provide resources and experiences to strengthen their content knowledge to be able to teach sciences more effectively in their own classroom.

The two also are involved in a project called ACEEL (Advancing Chemistry by Enhancing Learning in the Laboratory). ACEEL takes the standard labs and turns them into more inquiry-based labs where the students are engaging with the material and content. This allows them to think rather than just follow directions. Bussey and Orgill have hosted workshops for ACEEL in Kansas, New York, Bogota, and at Purdue University.

As for his future plans, Bussey would like to remain in higher education. “I would like to be MaryKay somewhere else. I want to be in a chemistry department, teach chemistry, and be able to continue the research and community outreach I have been involved with.”