David Oliver: Making Science Relevant

David Oliver: Making Science Relevant

Science teacher David Oliver lives life in curiosity and service. Adventures in his early teens were the foundation for his love of learning. At just 13, he traveled alone regularly from his hometown in Ireland to Saudi Arabia.

“It made me the person I am because I met people from all over the world. At that time, Ireland was very Catholic and very white, and here I was going to the Middle East,” he recalled. David’s dad worked in the aerospace industry, and it brought the family to the Middle East for six years. During his solo trips, David would travel on standby. “I knew how the system worked. I’d eventually get there, maybe not the way I wanted to, but I would get there.”

David’s work in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries brought him to the United States in 1995. With roles in sales and marketing, he spent time in Pennsylvania, NewJersey, and New York before moving to California, where he founded a life science consultancy working with startup companies overseas who wanted to partner with those in the United States.

“We did some training work for the British government and the Irish government, and we worked with government agencies overseas who were looking to learn about the market here and then make connections,” he said.

Disillusioned with the constant selling of consulting services during the Great Recession of 2008, David dissolved his business and began his quest for a new career. While he was interested in law and science, he didn’t want to return to school as a student. “I decided I would try teaching because of students’ curiosity. I saw there was a great demand for science teachers.”

David taught middle school science at Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos and St. Lawrence Middle School in Santa Clara, years he calls “basic training.” He joined the Mid-Pen faculty in 2015. He now inspires high school students’ curiosity in environmental science, chemistry, and physics classes.

“The way I approach teaching science is first to let the kids discover as much as they can themselves by guiding them, and second to help them understand why it's relevant to their lives,” he said, explaining his philosophy.

In his environmental science classes, a favorite project has students investigating tree coverage in different neighborhoods and correlating that data with residents’ socio-economic profiles. “Students are always very surprised by what they find. It’s really a kind of environmental/social justice project.”

In chemistry class, a student favorite is a flame test lab. Dragons observe the characteristic colors produced by metallic ions when vaporized in a flame. Students need to follow the experiment’s procedures step by step. “It’s a complicated lab,” he said. “The priority is always student safety, and in this case, I don’t want them to be intimidated by using a bunsen burner.”

The flame test lab will have to wait for current chemistry students while the school is in distance learning mode. Instead, David selected labs students can conduct at home using simple tools and ingredients like M&M's.

While remote teaching and learning have posed a challenge, he believes his students have had a smooth transition into his online classes because he has tried to keep it as close to the real classroom experience as possible. “The most important thing is that their interest and enthusiasm hasn't changed.”

One way David tries to keep students engaged is by incorporating his military experience into lessons. David is celebrating his eighteenth year in the National Guard and is on active duty one weekend a month with a unit in San Jose. His job? To design training plans if his unit needs to detect chemical, biological, and nuclear contaminants.

“When I talk about chemistry [in class], we talk about nuclear chemistry and the applications, and how knowing this information helps in terms of protecting people,” said David.

Last summer, during the protests that followed the death of George Floyd, every National Guard reserve unit in the state was called up to provide support to local police. David’s unit was sent to Santa Monica. “We worked night shifts, mainly manning checkpoints and keeping an eye on the locals, just generally providing support because there had been trouble in the city before the Guard arrived.”

In speaking with Los Angeles residents and peaceful protesters while on duty, he learned they appreciated the National Guard’s presence. “They were quite happy. We were around the corner, ready to be there if things went sideways.”

David says he’s a lifer in the National Guard and plans to be in service for as long as he can. As he reflects on his time in service, he’s most enjoyed that being on active duty brings him out of his silo. “I have met people from all over the socio-economic map. That, I think, is probably the biggest thing I take away from it—different countries, different socioeconomic profiles, and when you put your uniform on, you leave your silo behind,” he reflected.

“It's nice to give back, in a way, to the U.S. for what it's given me.”