“Among the things that have made teaching of chemistry an inspiration have been the intrinsic challenge of the subject matter, and the enthusiasm of the students—above all, witnessing their later successes in life. . .” –Elaine M. Kilbourne, circa 1967
As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we would like to highlight the achievements and influence of high school chemistry teacher Elaine M. Kilbourne (1923-2014), who taught locally from 1948 to 1993. A collection of scrapbooks and other memorabilia she compiled was recently donated to the Museum by her friend and former student, Mr. Guy A. Toscano. It documents her distinguished career as a teacher and educator, and her ability to mentor and inspire generations of students.
During her tenure at Anacostia High School in Washington, DC (1948-1968), and later at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, MD (1979-1993), Ms. Kilbourne earned a national reputation for her teaching. She pioneered the use of experimental and hands-on learning in her classroom, even discussing “atomic and ionic dimensions and molecular structure from student-constructed models”. In 1958 and 1963, Ms. Kilbourne received Principal Awards for Excellence in Science Teaching by the District of Columbia. The American Chemical Society recognized her contributions to the STEM field with numerous awards, including the Second District James Bryant Conan Award in High School Chemical Teaching in 1967.
Not a person to rest on her laurels, Ms. Kilbourne created a series of national curricula for high school chemistry seniors while serving as Science Education Specialist for the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She also worked for the National Science Foundation’s summer program, training chemistry teachers.
Throughout her long career, Ms. Kilbourne demonstrated a passion for chemistry and a keen ability to influence students’ learning achievements. Her impact is evident in the letters and notes of appreciation she received from students, which are preserved in her scrapbooks. Actions speak even louder than words, and as one of her awards noted, an “average of nine to ten of her students per year” went on to major in science at college, leading in several cases to illustrious careers in STEM fields.
Ms. Kilbourne graduated from Eastside High School in 1940, received her B. A. in Physical Sciences from Montclair State Teachers College in 1944 and completed a M.A. degree in Student Personnel Administration at Columbia University in 1947. The collection contains limited personal information, and I am left to wonder about this remarkable woman’s early life and school experiences, what sparked her interest in chemistry, and how she experienced being a woman science teacher during the mid-20th century. What is undeniable is that she contributed to the advancement of STEM education, and that she instilled a love of learning in generations of Washington, DC area students. Her contributions are now duly documented among the Museum’s collections.