SOUTH LOOP — It's not surprising that Jeff Kacena's fifth-and-sixth-grade science classroom at South Loop Elementary is stocked with microscopes, soil samples and posters on the scientific method — but the bookcase full of novels might seem a little out of place.
"I like to incorporate fiction into my curriculum," Kacena said. "When we're studying plate tectonics, and how dynamic forces in the earth create things like mountains, we read 'Peak' by Roland Smith, a fictional novel about a 14-year-old boy who climbs Mount Everest...I think it really brings science to life."
His reading list isn't Kacena's only effort to bring topics like geology and kinetics out of the textbook. During their physics unit last year, Kacena centered his lectures around a giant K'NEX rollercoaster his students built in their classroom. When they're learning about space, Kacena pairs orbit lectures with Stephen Hawking's sci-fi.
His methods seem to be working, if his track record at the annual district-wide science fair is any indication. Kacena has had students participate every year that he's taught at South Loop, and this year all four of the competitors from his class took home an honorable mention, a rare feat for their grade level.
The Roscoe Village resident said he's often in awe of his students' mastery of complex concepts, like this year's competitors.
"I had one student testing viscosity, I had another student who was testing how temperature affects the conductivity of different medals," he said, stressing, "These are fifth graders!"
"I learn more and more that if you present students with an opportunity and give them an inquiry space and support, it's amazing what they can come up with."
Kacena and his students seem to feed off each other's excitement. Tara Shelton, said she counts him as "one of [her] top teachers" and among "the best of CPS." Parents often report that their kids leave his classroom with a new passion for science, said South Loop's principal.
That's something Kacena can relate to, since it's pretty new to him, too. He's been at South Loop for three years after spending a year teaching in Chinatown. Before that, he worked at the Gap.
"I was training employees, and writing a fun training curriculum for the company, when I realized the only part of my job I enjoyed was teaching, and I needed to probably do something about that," he joked.
A few months later he enrolled at Loyola University, where he earned his teaching degree in 2009.
Kacena says the career change had exactly the impact he'd hoped it would, sending him to his classroom every day with a smile.
"One of my biggest goals is to get them to see how interesting and fun science can be," Kacena said. "I try to present material in a lot of different ways so that all my students are able to learn the concept. I think my students are constantly challenged, and I am too."