Beyond the Elements

Chemistry teacher David VonEhr is in his 27th year of teaching students how to “learn for the long term.”

Beyond+the+Elements

Ally Stapleton, Editor in Chief

As chemistry teacher David VonEhr recalls the formative days of his childhood, there is one man who sticks out. A man who kept a pencil and paper at the ready in his pocket, a man who had an answer for everything. A man who understood the importance of questions.

“He’d pull out his little flipbook and he’d write down questions,” VonEhr said. “Something would occur to him and it would be a question, so he’d write the question down for him to think about later on. … I could ask him about anything, plants or machines or history, and he’d have an answer.”

That man was VonEhr’s grandfather.

“He was what I would call a scholar,” said VonEhr. “To me, a scholar is a person who tries to excel in all academics, not just science. … That’s who I want to be. I want to be like my grandpa. He was a big inspiration to me. I want to be a scholar.”

VonEhr, now in his 27th year of teaching and his 21st year at FHC, is an instructor of both AP Chemistry and Chemistry 215. Over his many years of teaching, he has imparted his knowledge to thousands of students, and he strives to teach each one more than just chemistry: VonEhr hopes that each student who walks out of his classroom at the end of the year is prepared to learn and succeed in all disciplines after they leave FHC. In short, he wants his students to be scholars.

VonEhr’s own path toward scholarship began during his childhood. His mother was a widely admired English teacher, and he remembers being surrounded by books growing up.

“We always had literature in the house, lots and lots of books,” VonEhr said. “We’d eat dinner and the dishes would be sitting on the table, but it was okay to get up and go read. It was okay to read at the table. Everybody read, and everybody had books going, multiple books [at a time].”

As a high school student, VonEhr was involved in athletics, academics, and music. He was a standout running back on his Northview High School’s football team and participated in band, basketball, track, and National Honors Society, in addition to being a member of homecoming court. VonEhr jokingly wonders when he had time to study.

After seeing the influence that his mother had on her students, VonEhr decided to go into teaching after college. Twenty seven years later, that decision has proved to be a good one.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do [after college],” VonEhr said. “I had tons and tons of credit hours of science, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. … I just thought I’d try teaching, and I did and of course I liked it.”

As VonEhr stands before his classes today, demonstrating laboratory experiments with a wide array of chemicals, instruments, and procedures, many students may think of him as a chemist. His work at Van Andel Institute and ongoing research experiences certainly suggest that he is more than an ordinary teacher. VonEhr, however, does not think of himself that way. He has little to say about why he originally chose to teach chemistry because he believes that, in reality, “chemistry chose him.” To him, chemistry simply provides the building blocks for the many areas of knowledge about which he enjoys learning.

“I like teaching [chemistry] because you can do so many things,” VonEhr said. “I am a teacher who likes all sciences. I always like to question and ask and read about how things work in the world around me, and chemistry is the foundation of all that. So I wouldn’t call myself a chemist, but I love teaching chemistry because it allows me to answer questions about biology and geology and astronomy. It’s the foundation to understand all the sciences I encounter. … I’d say I’m a teacher first of all, teaching chemistry to understand the world around me.”

VonEhr recalls a moment early in his teaching career when a senior teacher told him that interacting with young people made her feel young. After 27 years of teaching, VonEhr wholeheartedly agrees that the enthusiasm of his students is the best part of his job, and he describes the infectious effect of young peoples’ energy with fondness.

VonEhr’s passion for his students is paralleled only by their enthusiasm when speaking about him. Decades worth of students have gone out into the world prepared by VonEhr to learn and struggle through the often laborious but always rewarding process of thinking.

“One thing Mr. VonEhr does extraordinarily well from the very first day of class is letting his students know up front of his high expectations,” said 2014 FHC graduate Andrew Peper. “That key feature of his teaching has helped me grow both as a student and an individual. It’s refreshing at such a young age to have somebody push you the way Mr. VonEhr does, and to genuinely take interest in your progress, not simply as a student, but as a person. At the end of the day, he values hard work and genuine, nose-to-the-grindstone, motivated resolution above effortless As.”

For VonEhr, teaching the formulas and laws of chemistry is simply a means to the more important end of teaching his students how to develop the mental processes necessary to solve problems. With the rise of technology, VonEhr says that students are becoming increasingly good at obtaining knowledge, but makes the important distinction between obtaining knowledge and applying it.

“[Students] are very good at obtaining an answer, but they’re not going through the struggle of obtaining mental thought,” VonEhr said. “That’s great if you want to talk about something that’s already been discovered, what if you want to make something new? What if you want to create something that’s different? What if you have an issue that hasn’t been solved before? What if you have a problem with a machine that’s not on Google because it hasn’t been solved before? How do you think through that process? We’re losing that chunk. … [Students] too readily want to jump right to the answer.”

While many students find VonEhr’s approach to chemistry difficult in the short term, the mental capacities they develop as a result give them an undeniable advantage as they move beyond high school to the bigger and more ruthless “real world.” Daniel Knister, a University of Michigan student who graduated from FHC in 2014, appreciates how VonEhr’s teaching forced him to move beyond ordinary thought processes.

“The problems [in his class] made you think. … Just knowing the material wasn’t really enough, you had to know how to apply what you had learned. That’s a really important skill to develop,” Knister said. “It’s because of [VonEhr] that I joined the Student Design team that I’m on at Michigan and that I’m sticking with Mechanical Engineering. … I think it would be fair to say that Mr. VonEhr has influenced a lot of the students he had.”

As VonEhr learned from his grandfather, a man who knew the answers to everything because he knew the value of questions, learning is more than memorizing facts, just as teaching is more than giving the right answers. The true scholar is the person who knows how to ask the right questions in order to work from confusion to correctness.

“You can’t make stuff up in chemistry. You can’t just wing it and write an essay,” VonEhr said. “There’s a right and a wrong. You know you’re right, or you know you’re wrong, and how do you figure out if you’re going to be right or not? You have to learn how to learn. It’s that process of learning how to be a student. That’s the key, is to learn how to be a student.”