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Navigating Upper School Science with M&M'S and Coffee

By Shannon O'Connor, communications coordinator
Building confidence and character in Upper School physics and chemistry.
Aakash Kumar’s Upper School students are developing important life skills in his chemistry and physics classes—most notably, charting their own paths and learning to be OK with making a few mistakes along the way. In the lab, Dr. Kumar teaches his students how to think critically and develop their own processes and procedures. He incorporates real-life lab subjects—M&M’S, coffee, aspirin, automobiles—to foster engagement, understanding and retention. 

Essential to his approach is forming meaningful connections with his students and creating an environment where they feel safe and supported. He engages with students regularly about pop culture—TV programs, video games, podcasts—and maintains a dynamic energy in his classroom, which counterintuitively helps students relax. “In the classroom, I’m usually very loud and very excited. I like my class to feel a little chaotic and not overly structured. Students relax when the classroom is not super rigid.”

Dr. Kumar enjoys giving students the opportunity to talk about content in a deeper way. “For the most part, they ask great questions, and I can engage with them and have good conversations,” he shares. “Because we allow for so much critical thinking and discussion, we get to know the students better. I feel a lot more connected with my students now than I ever felt as a student with the teachers that I had.” 

He tailors his teaching style to each grade level. Ninth-grade physics students are new to the Upper School energy and mindset, so he’s teaching them how to be better students. “I’d like to change their fear of being wrong. At some point along the way, they become afraid of making mistakes. I don’t know where it happens, but I feel like I need to help shift that.”

To that end, he promotes participation over perfection, and it’s a class requirement for every student to ask questions. He explains to them, “You have to put yourself out there and make a mistake because that’s how I can help you; I can teach you.” If any student is feeling apprehensive, he reiterates, “It’s okay to say whatever you’re thinking; it’s really good and it’s just a process, right? You can never get it the first time.” He reports that his students feel very comfortable by the end of the year to at least say what they’re thinking.

Dr. Kumar intentionally runs some of his physics labs without giving students detailed steps to challenge them to figure it out on their own. When they get stuck, he guides them as they problem solve. 

In his 12th-grade organic chemistry classes, he employs a more real-world approach, where he assigns a complex procedure and students have to distill the information into actionable steps. He explains, “It’s a useful process for them because lab manuals are generally paragraphs after paragraphs, and you have to synthesize it into a set of steps that you can execute.”

Below are some of the physics and chemistry labs happening in Dr. Kumar’s classes:
  • Calculating atomic mass—with M&M’S masked to hide their colors 
  • Decaffeinating coffee lab
  • Alcohol distillation lab— distilling out the ethanol
  • Synthesis of aspirin—combining chemicals to synthesize aspirin
  • Dye labs—synthesizing dyes of different colors and then making an art project with their materials. 

Dr. Kumar explains that he loves science because it “is full of abstract ideas, grounded in real-world examples. It’s a synthesis of many disciplines coming together—a little bit of research, understanding the literature, talking to people about it, a little bit of math, a little bit of art.” And in Dr. Kumar’s classes, science is also a teaching ground for critical thinking, confidence and courage. 

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