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Joseph Zuniga

Mr. Z's passion? Helping students find the answer

Posted November 2, 2016 by Liza Frenette

Exploding pumpkins? Testing DNA from crime scenes?

It’s all possible in Rochester teacher Joseph Zuniga’s world.

On the set of the daily Homework Hotline TV show, a pumpkin explodes with enough force to blow out the eye sockets and teeth that had been scratched into the pumpkin shell.

The activator is calcium carbide — once used for carbide lamps in the mines. The demonstration was done with staff from the Rochester Museum and Science Center, who appear regularly on the show along with staff from local zoos and, of course, the teachers who handle the homework. The pumpkin ruckus came after Zuniga demonstrated the property that allows a smaller cube to have the same mass as a larger cube. Mass is measured on a balance; weight is measured on a scale.

“Every Thursday I do a science challenge,” Zuniga said.

Homework Hotline airs live every day at 4:30 p.m. through WXXI and broadcasts on PBS stations across New York State.

“Mr. Z” has been teaching biology, chemistry and earth science to Rochester students so long that advancements in technology have allowed high school students to use materials previously used only at the college level. For example, they now use protein gels to separate proteins in order to show relationships between organisms; and DNA gels to separate DNA fragments. The DNA tests can be used, among other things, to establish identity from material recovered at crime scenes, or for paternity testing.

In his 36 years, Zuniga has been through multiple revisions of state standards.
Now, he is out of the classroom and working as a district science coach, where his days are filled with meetings and providing professional development for the science teachers in the Rochester district.

While he’s logged a lot of classroom hours in front of a chalkboard — and then a Smartboard — Zuniga is hale and hearty about homework.

You might say that’s what he teaches. He does it through union-sponsored programs — Homework Hotline and Dial-A-Teacher (toll free at 888-986-2345).

“Many parents would help their kids if they could,” Zuniga said, but parents might have difficulty with some of the topics.

So one day a week, he is on the air live for a TV episode at the NYSUT-supported Homework Hotline. Students in grades four through 12 can call in with questions about a homework problem that is stumping them. The hotline is open to students across the state.

Additionally, he works an afternoon a week for the Dial-A-Teacher program, which is up and running from 3:30 to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
The Rochester Teachers Association, led by Adam Urbanski, sponsors the program. On board every day are a minimum staff of a science teacher, a Spanish teacher and a math teacher.

“We might get 100–120 calls a night,” Zuniga said. “Some days it’s 60–90. There are at least four, sometimes five teachers there.” Calls come from all over the Empire State — and beyond. Zuniga has logged calls from California, Massachusetts and Illinois.
One time he got a call from Jamaica — a former student moved there and remembered the toll-free phone number.

“It’s not unusual to get calls from college kids,” Zuniga added.

If necessary, teachers can look things up online when students call with difficult questions — some students do not have access to computers — and there are review books, if the teachers need assistance.

“We typically don’t give kids answers; we help them find answers,” Zuniga said.

As a father of two teenage boys, he is also busy helping his own sons find answers. They’ve appeared on the Homework Hotline show to assist with demonstrations.

Dial-A-Teacher sends some of the calls to the TV show to be aired live.
On Homework Hotline, the bright lights and live action provide a different challenge. Teachers are more leading, to help the student get to the answer and not be embarrassed.

Zuniga knows what that is like. He was flummoxed once on the show.

“One time I went blank,” he said. “I couldn’t remember a definition. I’ll never forget it again. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” It was an ancient belief that embryos in development go through stages of being a fish, a reptile, etc. before becoming human. It was a minor theory quickly disproven, he explained.

Often, the best questions are about something current — such as a hurricane.

“It’s always nice when you can tie in the science concept to something that’s happening,” he said.

Homework Hotline, produced by Lisa Famiglietti, also airs book reviews generated and conducted once a week by students. A recent roster of topics included music therapy and studying the African fat-tailed gecko. Discussions abound on health, animals, history, environment issues, and the people and places of New York State.

Zuniga’s teaching experience includes middle and high school. He’s also coached football, wrestling and track. He has earned National Board Certification in Science. He also works part time for the NYS Education Department developing the Chemistry Regents Exams.

Zuniga helped his peers navigate through Common Core when it was first implemented, as part of a professional development program made available by NYSUT.

When he’s not busy wearing a shirt and tie as an educator, or a referee cap as the parent of two teens, Mr. Z is involved with his church and with the Ancient Order of the Hibernians; he serves as a volunteer in both organizations. He is also a building representative for the Rochester TA.

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