Around Halloween time, if you were to stop by Austin Gillespie’s chemistry classroom at Brighton High School, you might see some intriguing flashes of green fire, or a contact explosive erupt into a plume of purple smoke. It’s part of a magic show he normally does to show his students the wonder of science.
“I try to make chemistry fun,” Gillespie says. “It’s one of those things that a bad teacher can really just ruin the subject for you. Whenever I get a student who says, ‘I hate chemistry,’ it makes my heart sink because chemistry should be a fun and exciting subject.”
It’s Gillespie’s love of the subject that propels him to be the kind of teacher that makes students love what they learn. That talent is among the reasons Gillespie was selected to win the Ronald and Eileen Ragsdale Outstanding High School Chemistry Teacher Award from the chemistry department at the University of Utah. Gillespie’s colleagues at the University of Utah nominated him to receive the award. Each year, the award is given to a chemistry teacher from Utah who has demonstrated excellence in the teaching of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate chemistry classes.
One of Gillespie’s favorite parts of teaching — in addition to occasionally performing magic with chemistry — is allowing his Advanced Placement students the ability to choose a personal project that they research. Gillespie helps his students get the materials they need to study what they choose, from testing water samples to other exciting chemical scenarios like thermite reactions.
Gillespie’s love of chemistry is what compelled him to become a teacher in the first place. After finishing school, he started teaching at Brighton eight years ago.
“I originally had aspirations of being a doctor when I went to college but I loved chemistry and I enjoyed teaching, and I ended up in high school,” Gillespie said. “I’ve loved every day.”