A passion for teaching, science, and the Universe – an interview with Christian Youngs
By Vyara Tsvetkova
Christian Youngs has been a teacher at the American college of Sofia for the past seven years and has taught a variety of Science classes there: 8th-grade science – an interdisciplinary science class, 12th-grade Astronomy, 9th-grade Physics, profile Physics, and electives in Astronomy and Engineering. He is originally from Maine in the US and has attended the University Of Michigan-Ann Arbor. While there, he had been studying Aerospace Engineering, but due to medical complications had decided to change his major to Geological Sciences, about which he says: “I figured that if I wasn’t going to spend my life with my head in the clouds, I might as well stick it in the dirt.”
In this interview, we talk about his passion for teaching, his love for science, what makes science subjects so difficult for students, and how he finds ways to make them more interesting and enjoyable in the classroom.
V: How did you end up in Bulgaria?
C: I always wanted to go international as an international teacher. My first job posting was here, at the American College of Sofia. I didn’t plan on staying in Bulgaria for more than a few years, but I fell in love, got married, had a child, bought a house... There are other teaching opportunities in Bulgaria, but I stayed at ACS because of my interactions and my work with motivated, intelligent students who are seeking a worldly education and a worldly perspective. I absolutely love working with them.
V: How did you become passionate about the different types of science that you mentioned?
C: I really have to credit my dad. He was a Physics, Chemistry, and Earth Science teacher for 45 years, and my life growing up was one long lecture. Not in a boring way though – he made science, engineering, and all of these various fields fascinating. For example, one of the most important books for me growing up was The Way Things Work by David Macaulay and Neil Ardley. I have had it since I was six years old. It has beautiful illustrations and explanations about how things are constructed, how things work, how everything is put together. The Universe is a big puzzle and through science, we can discover how those pieces of the puzzle fit together. That’s what really fascinated me. So, one of the things I feel is very important in my 8th-grade science class is to help them understand that even though they are going to have Physics, Chemistry, and Biology, and they study these as separate disciplines, when they take a step back and look at the big picture, they are actually all one science – the science of how the Universe works; how everything is interconnected. As Leonardo da Vinci once said, “For the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” I feel that’s one of the core mantras that I take into my teaching philosophy.
Yes, we are studying the separate sciences, but let’s look at the bigger picture, let’s see a cosmic perspective, and let’s understand that science is a journey of self-discovery. Science is not a bunch of facts or words that we have to memorize from a textbook but rather a journey of self-discovery to understand who and what we are in the context of this amazing universe.
"The Universe is a big puzzle and
through science, we can discover
how those pieces of the puzzle fit together."
V: Why do you think so many teenagers struggle with the sciences (specifically Physics), in high school?
C: It’s not easy; it’s complicated topics and a lot of new vocabulary. Those things can be a little bit intimidating and demotivating, it can be a little bit frustrating unless that inherent human curiosity or some type of motivation is present. Sometimes we are missing the perspective, we are missing the big picture that allows us to wake up and realize that we do want to know these stuff. Yes, it’s challenging and yes, you may not get straight As, but we need to reevaluate the way we give students that perspective and let them grow as learners without punishing them for reasonable and understandable mistakes. Students are sometimes terrified of failure. From time to time in my classroom I hear students say “Oh, I am stupid,” “I am an idiot,” or “I am dumb” because they have made a small mistake on something. Don’t ever say that about yourself! Our internal monologue – the narrative that we tell ourselves – is so important. The self-speech is the program that our brain is running. And if the students have the habit of saying “I am dumb,” “I am stupid,” or “I am not as good as my friends or my other classmates,” we have to fundamentally change that narrative; we have to let students know that it’s okay not to be perfect, it’s okay not to have that six all the time. It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you process them in the appropriate way because that’s what’s going to give you the motivation to continue improving, to realize that mistakes are a natural process of learning.
I make mistakes as a teacher still. I sometimes don’t grade things as quickly as I should or give feedback to the students in a timely manner, or I sometimes get a little annoyed with students asking the same question that another one of them has literally just asked. However, my philosophy is that if someone in my class does very poorly on some type of assessment, it’s not just their fault: it’s also mine as I didn’t inspire them, I didn’t motivate them to be prepared, to have studied. There are teachers who excel at teaching at a very high, outstanding level. But when a teacher only teaches to the highest level, some of these students who aren’t on that level, get lost along the way. Personally, I take a slightly different approach. I tend to find the students who need a little extra help, a little extra motivation, a little more personal attention. I am not teaching only to the highest level, but I am bringing the whole class together to a level of proficiency. I do have to find ways to give those high-achieving students an outlet through which to express and explore their type of learning but I can’t spend all of my time in the classroom only teaching to the very top students because this way I will lose half of the class. When I bring everyone together, I have noticed that the mood and the students’ opinions of their experience in my classroom are significantly improved.
V: Around campus, you are famous as the teacher with the coolest classroom. Why is that? Can you describe your classroom and why it looks that way?
C: I want new students to walk into my classroom, and I want their jaws to drop. When my little 8th graders come inside the room for the first time I want them to be so impressed that they immediately pull out their phones and start taking TikToks around the room. First impressions matter because the story they are going to tell themselves about their experience as learners begins on that very first day when they walk into my classroom. I got LED lights, I got a terrarium, I got a telescope, posters, cool lighting, 3D printers, monitors…I got various different elements that are going to naturally draw out that curiosity even before I give my very first lesson. They get in the classroom and go “Wow, I’ve never had a classroom like this before. This is going to be different. This is going to be special. I am asking questions, I am exploring the classroom, I am being excited in the class…”
My father gave me a very important piece of advice before my first lesson. He said: “Christian, you always want your students to look forward to coming to your classroom.” I don’t have a particularly big one, but there’s an ambiance, there is a vibe in the room that you are in for a new experience; you are in for a different approach to learning. If I want to be a teacher who ignites the students’ curiosity, we have to be in a learning environment that also ignites it. I want my classroom to be in effect a hall of mirrors where my attitude, my positivity, and my passion for learning and teaching come across crystal clear to my students.
This is going off the deep end a little bit in the metaphysics, but if we look at the history of the universe, everything – space-time, matter, and energy collide down into a cosmic singularity at the origin of time, the Big Bang. All that energy from that singularity is what the universe is as it plays out through entropy, from higher states of order to disorder. But in that flow of energy, from order to disorder, we get neat structures – whether it be galaxies, stars, planets, continents, or chemical reactions that somehow created a self-enclosed environment in which information could copy itself. These whirlpools of structure developed into what we call life.
"I take the philosophy that everything
is interconnected, and you must treat
everyone in your life with kindness
and respect because, in a way,
everything is you,
and you are everything."
I am the waking universe through 13.8 billion years of cosmic evolution, looking back at itself. My worldview is that when I go around in my everyday life – yes, you are you, and I'm me, and that’s a desk, and this is a hammer, but it's also all just one thing that has blown itself apart in the construct of space and time; a stage upon which infinity can experience itself in an infinite number of ways. I take the philosophy that everything is interconnected, and you must treat everyone in your life with kindness and respect because, in a way, everything is you, and you are everything. In the grander context, you are the universe experiencing itself. It's kind of like we're in a weird, super complex hall of mirrors, where everything I experience and everything I see is a reflection – a delayed reflection upon myself. Yes, I'm not in control of you, but I'm in control of what's going on in your brain right now as you are listening to me speaking. Your behaviors and thoughts are a reflection of what I'm saying and what I'm doing right now and vice versa. Your questions are sparking this conversation, you're leading this narrative. And so, I want an environment that reflects all this positivity, all of this enthusiasm, all of this passion because they will become a part of my students' mental mirror.