THE BLOG
11/26/2014 12:11 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

Thank a Teacher Thursday: Brother Nick

Great science teachers don't just inspire some kids to become scientists. They also inspire legions of future non-scientists -- bankers and writers and ballerinas -- to embrace the joy of discovery, to grasp how science works and understand how to ask critical questions and evaluate evidence.

Luckily for NCSE, that was the impact of a certain Brother Nicholas, the biology teacher at De La Salle High School in Concord, California, who taught our very own Robert Luhn (NCSE's Director of Communications) to think like a scientist.

Robert remembers the very first day of his sophomore biology class in 1969. Br. Nicholas had a Petri dish sitting on an overhead projector (remember those?). As the boys busily took notes, Br. Nicholas took up a medicine dropper and added something to the Petri dish. Wow! Whatever was in there really started to squirm? What kind of life form might this be? "You knuckleheads!" barked Br. Nicholas, "you'll believe anything!" It turns out the dropper held mercury, and whatever substance Br. Nicholas had placed in the dish set the drop of mercury to wiggling like a salamander on a stove top. The lesson learned: Assume nothing, question everything.

And so began a series of rigorous (and rather devious) exercises in critical thinking. Robert reports, "he gave us grief for believing anything without evidence, questioned our assumptions, and questioned whether we'd read the textbook carefully." One time, the good Brother assigned Robert and his friend, Mike Dini, to answer a question posed in class. After weeks of mucking about in local waterways and lab work, the boys drove to school -- on a Saturday --chased down Br. Nick (who was cleaning his scuba gear) and triumphantly proclaimed the answer: "It's nitrogen!"

Br. Nick's response: "I told you that in class three weeks ago. If you'd have been paying attention, you would have known the answer!"

(Interesting footnote: Mike Dini went on to get his PhD in biology and is an associate professor of biology at Texas Tech. He's also tangled with creationists. So Br. Nicolas merits at least two 'thank-you's).

Robert took a lot of science courses in college, even briefly considering majoring in biology. But he was "all thumbs" in lab, and as to his grades in chemistry, well, the less said the better. Nevertheless, he attributes his success as a technology/science writer, investigative journalist, medical publication editor, and -- of course -- ace communications director of NCSE, to the knowledge and training Br. Nicholas beat into his head with a figurative stick.

So kudos to Br. Nicholas (and belated sympathy, because if Robert were even half the smart-aleck then that he is now, the poor man had quite a challenge on his hands) for teaching a generation of boys to take nothing for granted and demand evidence to back up any and all claims. It's not only scientists that benefit from applying scientific thinking while navigating a complex world.