Faculty Friday: RJ Bouchard

Each school year, the faculty at Nichols School provide tremendous guidance and encouragement to help their students learn and grow. Our faculty members are empowered to craft the curriculum as they see fit, to make learning relevant and rewarding for every child.
Faculty Friday features the outstanding teachers of Nichols School and showcases the work they do to help our students and our community.
In addition to teaching Upper School science classes, RJ Bouchard teaches the innovative Research Scholars elective for seniors and coaches sailing. Mr. Bouchard shares what he has learned through experimenting with different activities and class structures this year, and tells us more about some exciting projects he is working on with students.
How long have you taught at Nichols School for?
This is year number eight for me at Nichols.
What changes have you had to navigate in the classroom this year?
It has absolutely been tricky. So much of what I have done historically, we can’t do this year. In addition to labs, we relied heavily on group activities and peer learning in my classroom. That’s been challenging and that’s something that you can’t replicate with everyone sitting six feet apart, facing forward.
In a normal year, we were constantly rearranging the furniture in my room, the kids would do an activity in small groups or in a circle and then we would return to rows. I used to have a lot of variety in class, not just in terms of what we were doing or talking about in class, but even in the physical environment, and I find that’s been really helpful for the kids, and we’ve had to curtail that this year.
Lab experiments are such a crucial part of how students learn about science. How have you replicated that experience in a virtual learning environment?
When we do labs, there’s so much room for error with collecting data, which leads to difficulties in helping students reach conclusions or observe the phenomena I want them to. This summer, I got to spend a lot of time reflecting on what it is about the lab experience that really matters, and what the things are that I really want the kids to walk away from the labs knowing how to do or how to think. The AP Biology curriculum is a helpful framework in this context to see where we need to end up.
We have been doing lots of work with some online simulators and really targeting some of those skills I identified over the summer as the things I want the kids to pull out of a year of lab experience. We still spend a lot of time discussing experimental design and variables, control treatment, how to keep experiments simple to identify the variables of interest. We spend time collecting data but also putting it into a format that is helpful, visually representing data, and then also drawing conclusions from the data and applying what they know about biology to make sense of what they’re seeing.
Those are the core components that matter, and we can do that with data we generate online just as easily as we can with data from the classroom, and often it’s a much quicker process online.
What is the Research Scholars elective?
Research Scholars is an elective for seniors that we started in 2018. A small group of students prepare scholarly research alongside physicians from Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. Sai Yendamuri and Dr. Mark Hennon assist our students in preparing a research paper in their area of practice, which is thoracic surgery. The process for students includes crafting a research question, conducting background research, outlining a proposal for statistical research which was conducted by a team from Roswell Park Cancer Institute, reviewing the results of the study and assembling a draft of a final manuscript.
We’ve been utilizing remote meetings and Zoom to meet with physicians from Roswell since the first year of the class. The course is already designed in this distributed, quasi-remote relationship. That course definitely translates itself more easily to the remote environment than my biology classes.
What makes this elective such a rewarding experience for students?
It’s interesting to see that each year, the projects we are doing are very different and completely unrelated to one another. It’s not like we’re doing incremental work based on the year prior, each class’s work is in a completely different domain of lung cancer research.
It is its own little experiment, it changes every year. We’ve worked out a pretty good system for working through the basics in the fall. There’s a point that once we’ve given the kids all the information and training, the training wheels come off and it’s on them to start coming to the table with their own thoughts and ideas, do their own outside reading and bring that to class, and then working as a group and critiquing others’ ideas. Some of the things they’re asked to do, they’re not asked to do in any other class. They need to be vulnerable, they need to be honest with one another, and they also need to be willing to take feedback.
The paper written by the first cohort of Research Scholars in the 2018-19 school year was recently accepted for scholarly publication. What does that say to you about the success of the course?
It’s a huge validation of the experimental nature of the course. When Dr. Yendamuri first came to us, it was just an idea and it sounded cool. It really helps that the first group of four were just powerhouse students and they worked so hard. They were really patient with Dr. Yendamuri and I figuring out the course. There were these constant growing pains and a lot of uncertainty as a teacher when we didn’t know what the endpoint was and what the arc was. In that context, it’s doubly rewarding to see the general idea of the course play out exactly as we anticipated it would, and all that extra work and emotion that goes into the first year of a class validated in such a great way.
Why do you enjoy teaching?
It really comes down to getting to spend the day with kids in this very specific age group. I’ve worked with juniors most of my time here, and I find that to be such a fun age. They all have their unique personalities and they can respond to the same thing in very different ways. The scientist in me enjoys observing them as individuals and how they behave in groups. Junior year, in particular, is a zone where you tend to see an incredible amount of maturation and growth. It’s the year where they really do transition from kids to young adults. To the extent that I can play a role in that progression from September to May, it’s so rewarding to see that growth.
What do you enjoy most about Nichols?
I do really find the folks that work here are just so well-rounded and interesting and passionate. It’s something that drew me to Nichols and has kept me here since. My interactions with my colleagues keep me going.
Coaching the sailing team is another thing I love here. Like Research Scholars, it’s another example of if you want to try something new, sometimes the answer is yes. Professionally that answer is really invigorating when the school trusts you to set out in this uncharted direction and see what you can make of it. The personal empowerment I have received at different parts of my career here from the school saying yes has really allowed me to make my experience here my own and add components to the school that didn’t exist here before.