The wizard of Mira Costa, Teresa Nielsen

Mira Costa Honors and AP Chemistry teacher Teresa Nielsen is an LA County Teacher of the Year. Photo by Jefferson Graham

Mira Costa’s Teresa Nielsen is named an LA County Teacher of the Year

by Mark McDermott

The history of chemistry has frequently been intertwined with the practice of magic. 

The discovery of fire, for example. When early humans who used fire encountered people who had not yet learned how to make a flame, the latter often mistook the former for sorcerers and magicians. Metallurgy and medicine both emerged from a hoodoo background populated by alchemists and witch doctors. 

And so the Chemistry Magic Show that has taken place at the Mira Costa High School small theater over the last six years isn’t entirely unprecedented. Each May, MCHS AP chemistry students take what they’ve learned from their studies in one of the toughest classes offered at Costa and concoct magic tricks. Their audience is students from nearby Pennekamp Elementary, who walk to Costa with the promise of magic as a lure. They are rarely disappointed. 

Last year’s show began with a song. Senior Xavier Dargan, strumming a ukulele, sang a buoyant song about the joys of chemistry. “Chemistry is magical, emulsions, atoms very small, elements, solutions, yeah we have it all….” he sang. 

There was a little Harry Potter thrown in the mix —  bubbles and smoke (of the dry ice variety), an occasional cape, and most certainly some teenage wizardry. One young chemist, Allya Ahmed, made water disappear, and then the cup that held the water. Another turned water into glue (for the purported purpose of pranking his video game-playing older brother). A boy who identified himself only as “Will the Wizard,” made a bouquet of fresh flowers turn into icy, frozen flowers. Another boy made spider webs, a la Spiderman, which elicited genuine oohs and ahs from the young audience, and one question. 

“Is it edible?” 

“No. I wish it was,” the boy said. 

The tricks kept coming, each taking no more than two or three minutes, and each riveting the elementary students, who clung to the first few rows of the theater. One MCHS student, Emmett Dyer, waving a wand in the air, forewarned the Pennekamp students of his “dark magic” before he had the lights of the theater turned off and caused four beakers containing liquids to glow in the dark, each a different color. Another MCHS wizard lamented Manhattan Beach’s lack of snow and so created a bottle of snow right before the widening young eyes beholding this magic, which he claimed to have imported from the North Pole.  

This most definitely wasn’t a classroom experience. When one of the chemist-magicians needed a volunteer, hands shot up. When a question was asked, hands shot up. Different grade levels were ushered in and out of the theater all morning, but regardless of their age, they all reacted in the same way. The Pennekamp kids were all in. 

Teacher Teresa Nielsen with her AP Chemistry students at Mira Costa High. Photo by Jefferson Graham

All the young wizards performed impeccably. But seated in the back of the audience was the greatest wizard of them all, teacher Teresa Nielsen. She not only guided her students through a rigorous year of chemistry so advanced that it is usually not taught until college, but had conceived of the  deftest trick of all. She turned a classroom of teenage students into teachers, and several classrooms of kids, ranging from six to eleven years old, into rapturously attentive students. 

MCHS Principal Karina Gerger, who formerly was the principal at Pennekamp, had watched this particular magic trick unfold with nothing short of awe for the last few years.  

“The AP Chemistry students would take what they learned and create experiments where chemical reactions would cause change in color, size, bubbles, fizzy substances, and it would bring oohhs and aahhs from the elementary students,” Gerger said. “Over the years, the high school students began creating funny scripts to lead into and out of each experiment….The students just loved it.” 

The idea for the magic show was itself something of a chemical equation. Nielsen identified two things —  Mira Costa’s newly built small theater and the fact that the exceedingly difficult AP Chemistry exams take place in early May, leaving students with six weeks of the school year left and potentially not much to focus on. A public performance not only requires focus, but add a bunch of little kids to the equation and it becomes downright fun. 

What surprises even Nielsen, however, is how much the show means to both sets of students. 

“It’s all very magical,” she said. “And it’s really exciting to see the young children so eager to learn, and to participate. I know that my students, their hearts are just filled by seeing how impactful they are by getting up and performing.” 

“The only rules are that we can’t have fire,” Nielsen added. “We have to be very careful because it is such a nice facility.” 

Finally, a magic trick of a sort was pulled on Nielsen, when fellow chemistry teacher Ernesto Nodado nominated her to the Los Angeles County Department of Education as Teacher of the Year. She won. Nielsen was one of 16 teachers in LA County honored with this distinction in September. Earlier in the year, she was also named teacher of the year at MCHS and within the Manhattan Beach Unified School District. 


Nodado met Nielsen at a summer program 10 years ago, prior to coming to teach at Mira Costa himself, and was struck from the outset by how innovative and engaging her approach to teaching chemistry was. As a colleague, his amazement has only grown, particularly because the subject matter Nielsen teaches is so challenging, and often difficult to convey to students. 

“It’s such a hard concept to grasp,” he said. “This subject lends itself to doing lab work, but because it’s a mix of math and science concepts we can’t just explain things. We have to ask the students to prove whatever we are talking about using mathematical calculations. Her subject, AP Chemistry, is a college-level class. I’ve taught it before, so I know how difficult it is —  the complexity of what she has to make sure her students grasp and be successful when they take the AP exam, it’s really hard.” 

Nodado teaches chemistry to the students who later end up in Nielsen’s classes, and also teaches a biotech class that many of her students also take. He constantly hears students raving about his colleague. 

“The best way that they would really describe their experience in her classes is that it challenges, but also engages them,” he said. “She finds ways to kind of combine those two [qualities] to make it so they are learning something new and complex. She is progressing them as students. However, she does it in a way that makes it fun but also comprehensible. Because otherwise, it can be like a lot of gibberish.” 

Nominating her was kind of a no-brainer, Nodado said, not only because of her work in the classroom, but also her leadership among teachers. Nielsen is co-chair of the Science Department, a position that usually rotates but in her case doesn’t —  her colleagues want her to remain as one of the department’s leaders. 

Students in Mrs. Nielsen’s class practicing “molecular yoga.” Photo courtesy Teresa Nielsen

“She really runs the show,” Nodado said. “She really knows how to best address everyone’s concerns. She also has that skill of not dominating the group but making sure that everyone is feeling heard and advocating for the group.” 

Teachers don’t get into the profession thinking about awards or recognition, and Nielsen is no exception. She has been at Mira Costa for 11 years, and the thought of being teacher of the year had never crossed her mind. The honor nevertheless thrilled her. 

“I was blown away every step of the way,” Nielsen said. “It was an incredible honor just to be nominated at Mira Costa because there are so many phenomenal teachers on this campus. Then when I was chosen for the school, and then the district, and now LA County…just wow. It’s really quite incredible. I never anticipated I would get this sort of recognition.” 

Earlier in life, Nielsen did not anticipate becoming a teacher, and most certainly not a teacher who taught chemistry. 

“If I am being completely honest, I really disliked chemistry,” she said. “I never had a great teacher.” 

Nielsen always loved science but gravitated towards biology. It ran in the family; her father is a biology teacher. In order to study biology, she had to take chemistry classes, and she learned the subject well,  but it was always  a chore. The subject never came alive for her, and her teachers were unable to light a spark. She grew up in Alta Loma, outside Rancho Cucamonga, and attended the University of Santa Barbara, where she received an undergraduate degree in physiology and a master’s degree in molecular, cellular and developmental biology. After graduation, in 2000, she entered the private sector. Nielsen worked in biotech, a notoriously up-and-down profession. She was laid off from a job and needed to find work quickly, so ended up substitute teaching at a high school in Santa Barbara. 

“I had a job pretty much every day and became especially popular with the science teachers because I would actually teach their classes in their absence,” Nielsen recalled. “One of the science teachers had decided to leave his position, teaching chemistry and AP Biology, in the middle of the school year, and they asked me to step in before I had a teaching credential.” 

She would eventually obtain her teaching credential, and somewhat ironically, chemistry became her calling card. Though a change is underway, women are still vastly underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. A recent study showed that women comprise only 28 percent of the STEM workforce, up from only 8 percent in 1970, largely due to cultural stereotypes often unintentionally conveyed to children. 

“When it came time for teaching, the fact that I could teach chemistry basically made me a shoo-in for any job I’ve ever applied for,” Nielsen said. ‘A woman? Chemistry. Absolutely.’ Every school was looking for women who could teach chemistry because good chemistry teachers are hard to come by. So I’ve taught all sorts of things —  AP Biology and Chemistry, and now I’m teaching AP Chemistry. And chemistry is honestly the only subject that I’ve taught consistently throughout my career, every year for over 20 years. And now I’ve really learned to have a passion for it. I am trying to encourage and excite my students about our physical world the way I never was by a teacher.” 

From her own experience, Nielsen has found that once you start making the connection between chemistry, and your day-to-day life, the subject comes alive. 

“One of the ways I really try to hook the students is to make them realize how chemistry is really all around us,” she said. “I start every week with what’s called ‘Molecule Monday.’ They’ll never be tested on it, but I just put up a slide about a particular molecule. It can be the molecule that makes jalapenos hot, the neurotransmitter that makes you feel a sense of reward and joy, or it could be a pharmaceutical. It’s just to show students that there are chemicals and molecules all around us that are responsible for how we behave and what makes us feel better from medicine and that and the foods that we enjoy.” 

Molecule Mondays make molecules something like scientific pop stars. The slides include a little biographical information and some fun facts. Take, for example, sodium thiopental, a molecule better known as “truth serum” that Nielsen’s slide notes was invented in 1934 and is an “ultrashort acting depressant on the nervous system that induces hypnosis and anesthesia,” and is used in criminal investigations (it can be used to convict a suspect in India, but not the U.S., the slide notes) and psychotic patients. 

Or how about the everyday wonder of soap? How exactly does that work? Nielsen’s slide explains that soap molecules have a “water fearing” tail and a “water loving” head and that they form a supramolecular assembly called a micelle that can be used to trap dirt and oil through the molecule’s chemical reactions. 

“When soap molecules encounter a virus or bacteria protected by a lipid (fat) membrane, the hydrophobic tails force their way into the lipid membranes in an attempt to escape from the water and in doing so they disrupt the structure of the virus or bacteria thus killing it,” the slide explains. 

Quinine, nylon, folic acid, caffeine, tryptophan, dopamine —  a star-studded cast of molecules greet students every Monday, and enlarge their world by taking a good look at the small things that make every facet of life happen. 

“I really tried to hook them by making them realize that they can talk about chemistry to people around them,” Nielsen said. “And if they’re talking about chemistry when they walk out of my classroom, then I call that a success.” 

Nielsen is also having a blast. She is extremely grateful that her loss of a job two decades ago led to a life filled with young people learning and no small amount of laughing. 

“I laugh out loud so many times throughout the day with my students,” she said. “Someone who works in a cubicle doesn’t get to say that. You know, this morning was pretty darned hectic and I was running around, but I got into my first period class and we started talking and learning and I was just in such a good mood all of a sudden, just by interacting with these eager young minds. They inspire me every day.” 

She is also grateful for the tools the MBUSD community provides for teaching. She knows from her experience at other schools that this is not always the case. 

“This is a science teacher’s dream job,” Nielsen said. “I have students come back from Berkeley to help out in my classroom during their spring break, and they all see the lab equipment that I have and say, ‘This is better than what we have at Berkeley.’ We have Bluetooth thermometers and pH meters…that hook up to our Chromebooks. It’s all very high-tech. I wouldn’t be able to do that without the support of this community. I am given what I need to educate these students the way they deserve to be educated.” 

Nielsen also keeps her students loose, literally. She is an enthusiastic yoga practitioner, and every week she has students do a little “molecular yoga” in which they collectively form molecular structures through poses. 

Nodado remembers the first time he saw her students in the now somewhat famous “power pose” she teaches them to do before the stressful AP Chemistry exam. He was just passing by to wish the students well when he walked into a classroom full of defiant superheroes, arms raised as if they were about to vanquish a villain. 

“It sounds silly, but it empowers them to think, ‘I can do this, I will be successful,’” Nodado said. “And it really is a big exam, one of the most difficult high school exams they will ever take. By creating this persona, this superhero stand approach, it’s like you’re attacking this test, basically. I remember seeing it and it was like, ‘Wow, this is really inspiring.’ They can feel that she is on their side. She has prepared them, and now she is motivating them to do their best.”

Nielsen said there is science behind the effectiveness of the power pose, including a study by Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy that shows its effectiveness in boosting confidence. 

“These AP Chemistry tests are tough,” she said. “So I try to teach them coping skills to help them feel more confident about attacking the exam….We power pose together before the AP Exam in May – it’s a three-and-half-hour Chemistry exam that is ridiculously hard, college-level chemistry. They can use all the confidence they can muster to help them pass. Our AP Chemistry exam pass rate at Costa last year was 90.1 percent. The global pass rate is 54 percent. So we must be doing something right.” 

Mira Costa senior Emmett Dyer learned the power pose in Nielsen’s class. 

“It works,” he said. “From my anecdotal side, and from the science side, it works. When you do the power pose, your testosterone rises, and your cortisol levels drop, so you can think more clearly. It’s just cool. I think there’s a famous soccer player that does it before penalty kicks, too. I saw that the other day and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we did that in chemistry!” 

“I did it before my SAT test, too,” he added. “And everyone was looking at me, like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I’m like, ‘It works!’” 

It’s become a fairly common sight now at Mira Costa, before swim meets, math tests, and debates, anything that might be stressful —  suddenly one of the kids will stand aside and raise his or her arms in the air, chest lifted high, as if in victory. 

Nodado said this is evidence Nielsen has pulled off yet another magic trick. 

“I mean, how do you convince a group of teenagers to all do something silly like that?” he said.  

Dyer found that Mrs. Nielsen, as students know her, has a gift for getting him to do things he doesn’t believe he can do, and then actually having fun doing those things. Taking chemistry class itself was actually not something he thought he wanted to do, or could do well, but his older brother told him about Mrs. Nielsen. Sure enough, through her, he found a love for chemistry. 

“One thing that differed from chemistry I’d done in the past is that she really made the class applicable to our daily lives,” he said. “Chemistry itself is a subject that is based on an atomic level that you can’t see in a classroom, or really, in general. And so by her making concepts applicable to things in our daily life, it made chemistry much more tangible and easier to understand. And more interesting.” 

Likewise, Dyer wasn’t too sure about performing in the magic show. He doesn’t like public performance, and then you add in the chemistry part, where things can easily go wrong, it didn’t seem like a good proposition. But Mrs. Nielsen gently persuaded him, and then shortly before the show pulled him aside and told him his act —  the one with luminescent liquids, or what he called “dark magic” —  would be part of the finale. His act went off without a hitch and was a big hit. 

“Everyone cheered, and it was just a great, great moment,” he recalled. “It was really cool, seeing the whole audience cheer, and the screams of excitement, inspiring kids, hopefully, to proceed with chemistry or science in the future.” 

Student Jacob Tan said that having Mrs. Nielsen hasn’t just impacted the way he loves chemistry, but the way he lives his life.  

“Mrs. Nielsen is a once-in-a-lifetime teacher,” he said. “Really, she’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of person. She has such a kind heart and her incredibleness transcends just her teaching. Everything that she does is so kind and so incredible.” 

Tan, a senior, was an advanced chemistry student early in his time at Mira Costa, when he was only a sophomore. This meant that he needed some help with concepts he’d not yet encountered yet, and Mrs. Nielsen was unfailingly patient. Now, he’s a senior, and he comes to her classroom as a teaching assistant, simply to soak up more of Mrs. Nielsen’s kindness and wisdom. You can find him and the other TA’s sometimes power posing at the back of the classroom, encouraging the younger students to believe in themselves, and in the magic of chemistry. 

Tan now plans to major in chemistry in college. 

“All my life, I’ve wanted to be a doctor, and I still do,” he said. “My parents are both doctors, and that’s always been a passion of mine. But seeing the way that Mrs. Nielsen teaches, and the impact that she has on students, actually made me strongly reconsider. And now I know that I want to pursue a career in teaching, somehow. So whether that will be teaching at the medical school level, or even the high school level, I would love to emulate Mrs. Nielsen in whatever avenue of life I pursue. I aspire to be the Mrs. Nielsen of my circle.” ER


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