Retired Researchers Go Back To School

Microbiologist Stanley Barban introduces fifth-graders to the "invisible world of microorganisms" by swabbing a child's hand before and after washing, then growing the removed bacteria under glass for later study. He and the class also visit a laboratory at the National Institutes of Health. Meanwhile, electrical engineer Harold Sharlin uses wires, sockets, and light bulbs to demonstrate principles of electricity to fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders. Then he takes the eager pupils on tours of

Steven Benowitz
Dec 12, 1993
Microbiologist Stanley Barban introduces fifth-graders to the "invisible world of microorganisms" by swabbing a child's hand before and after washing, then growing the removed bacteria under glass for later study. He and the class also visit a laboratory at the National Institutes of Health.

Meanwhile, electrical engineer Harold Sharlin uses wires, sockets, and light bulbs to demonstrate principles of electricity to fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders. Then he takes the eager pupils on tours of the Chalk Point Generating Station in southern Prince George's County, Md.

"A key to getting kids interested in science is to get them at a young age," says the 68-year-old Sharlin. "Studies have shown that interest in science takes a nosedive after the sixth grade. They have to be shown science in the context of their everyday lives."

Sharlin should know; for the last five years, he has been project director for the Emeritus Scientists, Mathematicians, and Engineers (ESME) program, which links retired Washington, D.C.-area scientists, mathematicians, and engineers with local public schools. The program aims to spark the interest of inner-city youth in science and engineering careers.

The ESME program originated about five years ago. Sharlin, after 25 years in academia teaching electrical engineering and the history of science--18 of them at Iowa State University--was consulting for various government agencies. He also volunteered at a local senior center, and was appalled by the notion that many regarded all elderly as frail and unable to continue to contribute to society. A friend suggested Sharlin meet Larry Mirel, a retired attorney who is founder and president of the Emeritus Foundation, a nonprofit organization of volunteer retired professionals--attorneys, accountants, social workers, and teachers--who perform community service and provide professional advice in the Washington area.

Sharlin and Mirel met over lunch and discussed Sharlin's idea of organizing a group of retired scientists and engineers to help in local schools. "We knew there must be thousands of retired scientists and engineers in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area, and hundreds more like Harold--still young and vigorous and looking for something to do," Mirel recalls.

Several studies had previously reported United States students' poor showings in math and science, particularly when compared with their counterparts in other industrialized countries. Locally, a recent Washington Post article had reported that the city's elementary pupils scored above average in math and science on national standardized tests, then fell to the lower third by 11th grade. Says Mirel: "That showed it wasn't a lack of ability; rather, something turns them off."

Mirel and Sharlin began approaching schools with the idea of volunteer retired scientists and engineers working with teachers, providing hands-on demonstrations in the classroom to encourage young people's interest in science and technology. "When we polled the kids," Sharlin says, "everyone seemed to know about lawyers and basketball players. Hardly anyone knew what scientists did."

The Emeritus Foundation supplied start-up funds for equipment, buses for field trips, and other materials. Sharlin and Mirel set about recruiting through professional organization newsletters and meetings. In September 1989, the ESME program officially got off the ground when six scientists and engineers went to work in fourth- through eighth-grade classes in two Northeast Washington, D.C., schools, Bunker Hill Elementary and Taft Junior High.

"It's intergenerational," Sharlin says about the ESME program. "Retired scientists and engineers are underutilized resources. At the same time, we're addressing the poor showing of these kids in math and science. These kids see older people who have had interesting careers; it broadens their horizons."

The program has been wildly popular with teachers and students alike. It has grown from two schools to seven, and from six emeriti to 29. In August 1992, it won a three-year National Science Foundation grant for more than $398,000. Mirel attributes much of the program's success to its "unique design." Teachers and emeritus scientists jointly plan the classroom lessons, ensuring that they are topical and understandable. Each scientist signs on for a unit of six hour-long classes with a concluding field trip, often to a museum, laboratory, or plant. The scientists and engineers don't teach; rather, they supplement the programs already in place with hands-on demonstrations and explanations.

"We foster an ongoing relationship with the students and the teachers," Sharlin says. "It's not just one hour and out. This kind of contact makes an impression; we develop a rapport."

Mirel says he has been pleasantly surprised at how the teachers have embraced the emeriti. "We knew the kids would love it," he says, "but we were a little worried about the interplay with the teachers--we didn't want anyone stepping on toes." Mirel tells the teachers and principals to treat the emeritus scientists as "high-priced consultants." They also use them as mentors.

"Most of these teachers don't have much formal training in science, and it's not really fair to expect them to have much," Mirel says. "Teachers are often afraid of science themselves. They're afraid of an experiment failing, and of not understanding the material. This gives them an opportunity to learn and develop their science teaching skills, as well."

Julie Simon, a fifth-grade teacher at John Eaton Elementary School in the city's Northwest section, says it's a relief to have someone in class to answer the pupils' questions, rather than "always having to look it up." Retired microbiologist Barban, who spent more than three decades at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md., speaks to Simon's class about the "invisible world of microorganisms," covering a range of topics including viruses and immunology as well as pasteurization.

"The kids love it, and they ask lots of questions," says Simon. Barban, who had never taught before, now acknowledges that when he first stepped into a classroom some three years ago, "the experience was frightening."

Many of the scientists are like Barban--they wonder what they'll tell a 10-year-old about science. "Translating the way scientists think in their science to something acceptable and useful to the young child can be a challenge," says William J. Condell, Jr., retired director of physics at the Office of Naval Research, who also lectured at George Washington University. He claims to spend more time preparing for lectures to sixth-graders than he did for college students.

Condell, 66, says he "jumped at the chance" to work in J.F. Cook Elementary School in Washington's Northwest section because he felt that "many of these kids needed a little extra attention."

He stresses principles with his sixth-graders, and attempts to "relate physics to their everyday life.

"You have to understand where these kids are coming from," he says, "so you can relate the material better to them." For some classes, he'll show up with balls of various shapes and sizes--bowling balls, basketballs, and golf balls, for example--which allows the students to learn about weight, size, diameter, circumference, and friction. His classes explore Newtonian mechanics and optics, electricity, and magnetism. "I introduce them to serious mathematics and physics," he says. "It's fun, but it's also serious work." More important than what they learn, Condell says, is developing "the ability to think and question."

Retired Bunker Hill principal Carolyn R. Preston credits the ESME program with helping to establish the school as a demonstration school for science, meaning, she says, that "its teachers have been determined to be highly skilled in teaching science, and that students from other area schools are brought in for science programs."

When Bunker Hill, an academically rigorous public school in the city's Northeast section, decided several years ago to begin to emphasize the sciences, a regional superintendent introduced Preston to Sharlin. They found that they had several common goals, particularly showing pupils how science impacts on everyday life. "We started out making sure that the middle grades--fourth, fifth, and sixth--were exposed to areas that they could begin to think about as career choices." Preston recalls. "The emeritus teachers brought in so many materials and conducted such fun and fascinating workshops, the kids were awed. Some expressed interest in careers in these areas, such as engineering and geology."

According to Preston, the General Electric Foundation of Fairfield, Conn., has stepped in and lent support to the ESME program, which in turn has helped fund and "round out the science program" at Bunker Hill, supplying equipment and other necessary materials. When the district saw that the school was committed to teaching science, it kicked in funding for a pair of science laboratories, which allowed the school to hire its first full-time science teacher.

The ESME program, entering its fifth year, continues to grow. It has reached into nearby Montgomery County, Md., and its organizers hope it will spread to major cities throughout the U.S. In fact, the NSF grant requires the ESME program to help establish six similar programs in other locales. One has already taken root in New York: The Long Island Forum for Technology began a pilot program in April.

But will the ESME program ultimately make much of a difference in a young person's decision to pursue a career in science, engineering, or medicine? No one can say for sure. The program simply hasn't been in existence long enough.

"It's hard to assess the program at this point," says Condell, adding that "many schools want emeritus scientists, but volunteers are hard to come by.

"The program has received high marks from everyone-- principals, teachers, parents, and students--but it's like any other educational program: How do you know if it's better than what it replaced?"

For the participating scientists and engineers, gratification is more immediate. "Every once in a while a student suddenly raises his hand--he won't look confused or bored--and blurts out: `I understand it,' " Condell says. "That's very rewarding."

For more information about the Emeritus Scientists, Mathematicians, and Engineers program, contact project director Harold Sharlin at (202) 966-2122, or Emeritus Foundation president Lawrence Mirel at (202) 232-0863. The Emeritus Foundation may also be contacted by mail at 1614 20th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009.

Steven Benowitz is a science and medical writer for Penn State University's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa.