This science teacher puts the fun in fundamentals
By Jessica Laskey
Dr. Kellie Whited is the kind of cool teacher you always wanted as a kid. She’s trained exotic animals and appeared on “The Tonight Show.” She’s worked on a language project with chimpanzees. She loves “Star Wars,” and she created a summer-school class called The Science of “Star Wars.” Her classroom at Sacramento Country Day School is the unofficial student union, where students hang out at all hours of the day. Whited couldn’t be happier in her role as teacher, mentor and “Science Lady,” as her lower-school students affectionately refer to her.
“I’ve had many weird jobs,” Whited says. “They’ve all prepared me to do what I do now. I feel like taking many different paths leads you to where you’re meant to be.”
A native of San Diego, Whited came to UC Davis to study veterinary medicine and worked at Marine World during the summers. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she worked at the San Diego Wild Animal Park with pretty much any animal they could throw at her: cats, birds, snakes, you name it. (“The birds are the most unpredictable,” Whited says. “Happy one minute, biting you the next.”)
This work experience led her to “stalk” Joan Embery, the longtime international ambassador for the San Diego Zoo who appeared with exotic animals on “The Tonight Show” with both Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. Whited contacted Embery and convinced her to allow her to intern, which led to Whited’s own appearances on the show.
Despite fulfilling a childhood goal, Whited found she missed Davis, so she returned to the university to work for a lab and earn her Ph.D. studying the digestion of fats in the body. She began to teach at UC Davis as well as Cosumnes River College. During these lecturing stints, a friend who worked at Sacramento Country Day approached her about teaching a nutrition class at the K–12 school. She accepted the job and was soon teaching one high school class a day while also pregnant with her first son, writing her dissertation and lecturing.
“I never thought I would be a high school teacher,” Whited admits, though she says the fact that her students “don’t bite me or pee on me” like her former animal charges has its benefits. But she found herself falling in love with “the big kids” and the ways she could open their eyes to the wide world of science.
“Kids often think that if they like science, they have to be a doctor,” says Whited, who lives within walking distance of Country Day. “Science isn’t all lab coats and chemicals. It’s silly and messy and fun. There are so many other options.”
Fun is a key component in Whited’s classroom. As a teacher of biology, anatomy, physiology and nutrition for the high school and the coordinator of all things science for the lower school, she’s all about hands-on activities (she starts kids on dissections as early as kindergarten) and experimentation.
“The most important thing for kids to know is that failure is OK,” Whited says. “Go ahead. Take a wild stab and make a fool of yourself. You’re failing in a safe environment. But you have to keep asking questions.”
Last November, Sacramento Country Day participated in PhUn Week!, a partnership with Sacramento State in which students in kindergarten through fifth grade learned about physiology. They constructed models of the respiratory system using Gatorade bottles and tested neural signaling in cockroach legs. If that sounds like it requires a lot of focus for such young students, Whited’s response is clear.
“Kids are sponges,” she says. “They want to learn, and we don’t want them to get to a point where they think science is too hard. By exposing them to things early on and learning through play, they won’t experience culture shock once they get to the higher grades and start tackling more complex concepts.”
For more information about Sacramento Country Day School, go to saccds.org.
Jessica Laskey can be reached at email@example.com.