Humans of Harker: He’s got his “ion” teaching

Michael Eng passes on knowledge through education

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Alysa Suleiman

“There’s a very limited number of subjects, and there’s a lot of people on earth. It’s very hard to be the best at anything. My goal would be to help other people be the best that they can because it’s very pleasing to see whoever you teach finally understand [the topic].” Michael Eng (12) said.

During the Jahiliyyah period, this structure may have housed 360 idols of the god Hubal. Each year, this structure is draped with a new embroidered—”

Buzz.

Memorial Day weekend, the end of Michael Eng’s (12) sophomore year. In the sweltering humidity of Atlanta’s onsetting summer heat, Michael sports his trademark neon orange shirt, just one of dozens that he has been collecting since fourth grade. Onstage, he faces another group of junior varsity quiz bowl competitors in the ultimate test of pure knowledge. It’s a neck-and-neck tie, and this last question will determine which of the opposing teams will carry home the victory. 

“Kaaba.” 

Two years later, as he recalled his sophomore moment of victory, Michael said with a cheeky grin, “I got the answer right.”

In the world of quiz bowl, even the deepest repository of knowledge doesn’t automatically determine the winner. Rather, it’s the ability to derive the answer from an offhand batch of clues provided by the moderator, followed by the sheer speed at which the competitor’s hand makes contact with the buzzer.

“When you’re buzzing in, you hear a bunch of gibberish, a bunch of clues that you’re completely unfamiliar with. But then there’s that one thing that you know, and in that moment, you think, ‘Oh, wow, I actually might know this,’ and then you press the button on the buzzer,” Michael said, miming his movements as he relived the moment. “The aim of the game is to try to make as few clues seem difficult.”

On the quiz bowl team, all members subject their frenzied foray of knowledge on one specific subject, usually distinct from that of their fellow team members. For Michael, his expertise lies in chemistry. 

“He’s really put a lot of effort into becoming a better player,” said Nathan Ohana (12), close friend and fellow quiz bowl member. “We’ll hear a question during quiz bowl practice, and he could rant on about [the answer] for 10 minutes. Even though that one clue is supposed to be the hardest clue, Michael instantly knows everything about it.”  

Finding his niche, though, took a while. 

Michael first joined quiz bowl in middle school, determined to focus on expanding his knowledge of history. But with history being a difficult and extremely competitive subject in competitions, he eventually decided to switch his area of study in high school.

“In second semester of sophomore year, I was feeling really sad because I had all these tests coming up and my grades were slipping,” Michael said. “Then, Kyle [Li (‘20), the 2018-19 quiz bowl captain] said, ‘Wow, Michael, you’re really good at those chemistry questions,’ and that really boosted my confidence.” 

That summer, Michael took it upon himself to self-study even more chemistry. And when school picked up again in the fall, Michael took the organic chemistry course with upper school chemistry teacher Dr. Casey Brown, delighted to further his interest in the subject.

“At first, he was just another kid that walked in my room, but boy, did that change over time,” Dr. Brown said. “Michael is exceptional.”

Michael attended Brown’s inaugural class of organic chemistry, and Dr. Brown noticed that Michael’s “incisive, thoughtful and clever” questions were essential in helping him realize when he was speaking too fast or needed to re-explain a concept. 

“Every once in a while, you find someone who is so intrigued by a particular subject that they can’t let it go. And for Michael, that’s chemistry,” Dr. Brown said. “Chemistry structures are just what makes his brain work. That’s who he is.” 

But looking back at his seven years at Harker, Michael realized that, even with chemistry, it’s simply “impossible” to be the very best at any particular academic subject. 

“There’s a very limited number of subjects, and there’s a lot of people on earth. It’s very hard to be the best at anything,” Michael said. “My goal would be to help other people be the best that they can because it’s very pleasing to see whoever you teach finally understand [the topic].”

Out of this revelation sprung Michael’s desire to someday become a professor, someone who could do research and also teach others. Over this summer, he had his first opportunity to practice and refine his teaching methods as one of Harker’s AP Chemistry T.A.s. 

“Michael has a professorial manner, and it’s not boring or didactic,” Dr. Brown said. “[As a T.A.], his approach was thoughtful, his explanations were clear, his pacing was reasonable. He did a great job.”

Gordon Chen (10), a quiz bowl member and one of Michael’s many summer chemistry students, felt that he has benefited greatly in both ways under Michael’s assiduous style of tutelage.

“My favorite quality about him is his empathy,” Gordon said. “I am two years below him, so I am going through a lot of things he went through before, and he’s been there every step of the way to make sure that I am comfortable. It goes beyond quiz bowl–he really understands what you go through, and he makes sure to help you out.”

Sometimes staying up past 2 a.m., Michael readily answered all Facetime calls, frantic last-minute text questions and emails, explaining concept after concept. Though the process could seem time-consuming, Michael says that it would frustrate him more if the students left the call without fully understanding how to approach the problem. Teaching provided Michael with a sense of closure when his students finally learned everything they needed to know. 

“This was the first instance where I was in an official teaching capacity, and I really think that that is when I knew what I wanted to do, or what I wanted to strive to do,” Michael said. “Whether or not I end up in an official teaching position, I’ll make sure that my occupation involves explaining things, teaching things.” 

In fact, Michael has been teaching for far longer than he realized. Michael has a younger sister with Down syndrome, and with her being four years younger, Michael learned to shape his methods of explaining things to help his sister understand the world around her better. Especially in elementary school, he recalls explaining math problems in different ways until she understood them, even though the next day she would forget, and he would have to explain it again. 

“From a young age, I was surrounded by people who were constantly teaching and explaining things to [my sister], and that made me want to be better,” Michael said. “But I’ve also surrounded myself with people dedicated to their craft and people who are very kind and very supportive, and that has inspired me to do the same.”