Chemists in the Real World

Philip Rodenbough


Philip Rodenbough, US Peace Corps Volunteer

Philip Rodenbough hasn’t started his career yet—he’s a graduate student at Columbia University studying chemistry—but he’s already taught chemistry for two years in a pretty unusual settings.

After graduating from college, Rodenbough joined the U.S. Peace Corps. For two years he volunteered as a chemistry teacher in West Africa: first in Burkina Faso and then in Guinea.

“For one academic year I taught 2-3 hours Monday through Thursday, plus computer lab hours. For another academic year I taught 4-5 hours Monday through Wednesday, plus occasional English classes,” Rodenbough says. He planned lessons and labs, assigned and graded homework, conducted exams, and lived immersed in the cultures of the two countries.

It was an experience he highly recommends. “It was a great way to get out and see the world. It made me appreciate the diversity of the human experience,” he says.

What's a typical day on the job like?

For one year I lived in Burkina Faso, in a medium-sized town at a major intersection of two highways. The highways were paved, but other roads were not. I had electricity and a water spigot in my courtyard (which I shared with another family). Each morning I would wake up and bike from my home to the other side of town where I taught. I would teach for two or three hours. It mostly involved lecturing and writing on the chalk board, but I also led a few science lab activities and demonstrations with some limited supplies.  In the afternoon I ran the computer lab, and students would come in and learn how to type (and occasionally do some internet browsing). In the evening I would return home and spend time grading assignments, writing lesson plan, and talking with friends and neighbors.

Next I was sent to a very small village in Guinea that had no paved roads, running water, or electricity. I lived in a small house on the school grounds. Each morning I went to the water pump that was on the school grounds to gather my water for the day. After that I taught chemistry for 4-5 hours each day and ran an after-school English club as well. In the afternoons, I planned lessons, graded tests and assignments, and, spent time with friends and neighbors.

Are there any apps/software/instrumentation/tools that you can't live without?

My essential tools were the state-directed textbooks on which national exams were based. I had an obligation to prepare my students for these important exams, so I thought very carefully about time spent straying away from the textbook material.

Describe your work environment.

It was a school and I didn't have my own office. We went around to each different group of students to teach them. We mostly had chalk and a chalkboard. The students had their notebooks. If they were lucky they had copies of textbooks, but this was rare. I used local resources creatively to do labs. My class was able to electrolyze water with some car battery acid, a few lengths of copper wire, a couple of pencils, and some creative water bottle cutting.

Philip at work

Does your job follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule?

It was a very slow paced environment and I had a lot of free time. My teaching load was light.

What was your best productivity trick?

classroom children chemistry experiment

I tried to understand where the kids were coming from and then tried to frame the chemistry lessons around that. Need to do a distillation? Let's use the sugared hibiscus tea sold on campus as refreshment. Need to study organic chemistry? Let's talk about the traditional indigo dyes used around town.

What's the best career advice you've received?

Join the US Peace Corps.

Do you have any special talents or traits that make you a great fit for your job?

Flexibility went a long way. Political turmoil caused me to abruptly change my country of service. Teachers often tacked on extra days to holidays, so school would unexpectedly be delayed a week or so. I would start a chemistry lesson and soon realize that students were nowhere near where I assumed they were with math skills. Definitely need to be able to roll with the punches

What essential habit do you have now that you wish you'd started much earlier?

Be open to new experiences and take risks. It's a big world out there.