Retirees inspire students to study science

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Emily Hatton

Ask kids to picture a scientist, and odds are they’ll “imagine little, old, gray-haired, balding men in white lab coats [who are] extremely nerdy and geeky, have no social skills, and can’t interact with human beings,” said Jane Macedonia, teacher and Science Olympiad coach at North Bethesda Middle School.

That’s why two volunteer programs — Retired Scientists Engineers and Technicians (ReSET) and Senior Scientists and Engineers (SSE) were formed to help change the image of scientists for children, Macedonia said.

The two groups focus on placing working and retired professionals in school classrooms, where they can nurture an interest in science and expose students to science-related careers.

“It’s really intergenerational,” said Harold Sharlin, Ph.D., founder of ReSET. “I have knowledge, and I have an attitude towards science which I’m transmitting. It’s a legacy,”

Elementary, dear Watson

Sharlin — who has a bachelor’s of science in electrical engineering, a master’s degree, a doctorate in American history, and 25 years’ experience teaching history of science at university level — refused to sit back and do nothing when he retired in 1988, he said. Instead, he founded ReSET and began bringing volunteers into classrooms across the Washington area.

The group works with elementary schools in the D.C. metro area, and for the first time last year, expanded into a day-care center. Its purpose is to create a hands-on learning environment and encourage students to take science electives in high school, said John Meagher, executive director of ReSET.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always an easy sell to volunteers. “The trepidation of going into a classroom of elementary school kids…makes grown men quake,” said Sharlin.

That’s why the classroom teacher and ReSET volunteer work as a team to find appropriate activities for the class, Sharlin said. Over the course of a semester, volunteers present six one-hour lessons in the classroom and organize a field trip related to the topics they discuss. Lessons vary depending on the volunteer’s background.

During classroom sessions, the teacher is present, participating and maintaining order. The typical time commitment for ReSET volunteers is about 10 hours a week.

“It gives you a chance to impact young people,” said Meagher. “And if you affect a young person, and draw them into the science in which you’re interested, it could change things forever for that student.”

Around 60 people volunteered with ReSET during the 2010-2011 school year, Meagher said, which represents a tripling of the number of volunteers since 2008. Twice as many schools participate now, too.

“It’s not like many of the volunteer choices that people have at my age. It’s quite challenging trying to figure out how to get into these young people’s heads,” said Bob Blumberg, an 86-year-old volunteer.

Blumberg, a retired mechanical engineer, began working with ReSET in 1995. He started out volunteering in schools in Southeast Washington D.C., and for the past three years has been in Silver Spring, Md.

“It’s the most intellectually challenging and gratifying volunteer activity that I could think of, that I’ve ever come across,” said Blumberg.

On up through high school

Like ReSET, SSE volunteers are matched with teachers, but volunteer for the duration of the school year instead of one semester. Time commitments vary from four to eight hours once a week, not including lesson planning. SSE is a program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The retired engineers and scientists with SSE volunteer in elementary, middle and high schools in Montgomery and Fairfax counties. They work with teachers to determine how their time is best spent in the classroom, whether it is leading discussions and labs or answering questions.

“It’s not a lack of faith on the ability of teachers to teach science. It’s just a highly specialized experience of professional and, in most cases, retired scientists in the classroom,” said volunteer coordinator Ronald McKnight, 72.

Robert Thomas, a 62-year-old freelance writer and former analytical chemist added, “You can’t really say there is a typical volunteer, because it depends on the expertise.”

Thomas is entering his third year with SSE and works with chemistry students at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Md., as well as with a few students from the Science Olympiad team at North Bethesda Middle School.

“This is probably one of my most fulfilling experiences,” he said.

To make his sessions at Sherwood more engaging, Thomas switched from presenting theoretical concepts to talking about current events related to what students are learning at the time, he said. Over the past year, he discussed and explained the nuclear disaster in Japan, alternative energy, and technology used in CSI.

“I’d say for several of them, it gave them an interest in chemistry that I might not have been able to spark,” said Mary Baker, a teacher who worked with Thomas at Sherwood last year.

Baker works at Clarksburg High School this year and said she hopes to bring the SSE program there. “It’s really to relate science to how it’s being used in the real world, trying to make it more interesting, trying to be a little more creative in the way science is taught,” said Thomas.

Getting involved

Both organizations welcome those interested in learning more about training and volunteering.

To learn more about SSE, email Ronald McKnight at rmcknight@starpower.net.

For those interested in working with ReSET, call John Meagher at (703) 250-0236 or email johnmeagher@cox.net.

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