Small project grants could help us grow the next Bill Gates - East Valley Tribune: Ahwatukee Foothills

Small project grants could help us grow the next Bill Gates

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Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com.

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Posted: Thursday, April 7, 2011 2:02 pm | Updated: 3:35 pm, Sat Dec 22, 2012.

I squeezed my middle-aged middle into a student desk at teacher Mike McKelvy’s chemistry classroom at Basha High School in Chandler and began firing off questions.

What is McKley’s background? Why had award-winning high school senior Scott Boisvert identified McKelvy as his most influential teacher?

Why aren’t there more Scott Boisverts in Arizona? Why aren’t there more Mike McKelvys? What will it take for Arizona to turn around its dismal reputation for high school science and math education?

In case you missed my Wednesday column, Scott Boisvert is only the second Arizona student in this century to have made it into the Top 10 of Intel’s annual Science Talent Search.

Intel announced the winners in the national competition on March 15. That was 14 days before former Intel CEO Craig Barrett pretty well trashed Arizona’s education system and just one day before the Arizona Science Foundation released a report that said Arizona “lags the nation” in science and math education and is “well below the nation” in “ensuring a high quality talent pipeline.”

It didn’t take long to figure out why Boisvert was influenced by McKelvy.

McKelvy is a pro in more ways than one.

Bachelor’s degree from Berkeley in 1975. M.S. then Ph.D. from Arizona State in 1985.

He’s been a college-level senior research scientist and affiliate professor. He was director of the Goldwater Materials Science Laboratories and he co-founded Science is Fun, an ASU-based program that takes science demonstrations to K-12 students.

McKelvy retired from ASU to follow his passion for working with younger students. After doing the course work necessary for a teaching certificate, he began teaching at Basha High four years ago.

And that spelled opportunity for Scott Boisvert. It meant he would have a teacher who was, in Boisvert’s words, “very knowledgeable about the field.”

What would it take to get more teachers like McKelvy into high school classrooms?

To begin with: money.

No surprise there. McKelvy said he made the career change because his family was reasonably well situated and he could afford to follow his passion and launch a second, less lucrative career as a high school teacher.

A student graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry is likely to take a pay cut if he chooses public education as his initial career path, McKelvy said.

I’ve long believed that experienced professionals should be encouraged to enter the classroom as a second career and thought requiring a teaching certificate was an unnecessary impediment.

McKelvy agreed that some of the work he had to do for a certificate was not as useful as he had hoped. But not all of it. In particular, he cited the high school classroom management skills he learned. In general, he said, college students are more motivated. After all, they had to pay to get into the classroom.

Even so, doesn’t it make more sense with so many boomers approaching retirement to take a seasoned expert and teach them how to teach than to take a teacher and try to turn them into experts?

When I asked to meet with McKelvy to talk about how the science and math education pipeline could be improved, it hadn’t occurred to me to invite Boisvert to the conversation.

But when he showed up for a picture with his teacher, he joined in.

I’m glad he did because he took the conversation in a direction that hadn’t occurred to me.

Boisvert noted that students from New York state had dominated the competitions. He thought it was in part connected to the large number of colleges and universities in the east and in part connected to the attention given them by the Empire State’s equivalent of our state’s Science Foundation Arizona.

The vast majority of finalists in the elite Intel contests had “investigated their interests” at local colleges, he said.

“The key is to get access to a research lab,” he said.

It wasn’t easy, but Boisvert did just that for his investigation of the effects of chemicals in water run-off on amphibians.

He said most of his email and telephone calls to ASU seeking lab access were either ignored or rejected. That is until Dr. Elizabeth Davidson let him into her lab.

Could it be that I’m just a symptom of an adult world with blinders on? We care about the Scott Boisverts of Arizona and their achievements. But we don’t include them in the conversation; we don’t do enough to make a time and a place for them.

McKelvy took the conversation one more step, noting the lack of incentives for university scientists to open the door for high school students.

At the university level, he said the pressure is intense to find funding for research projects.

What if Science Foundation Arizona were to create grants to encourage university scientists to give promising high school students laboratory access? he asked.

McKelvy said project grants for as little as $5,000 could be enough to motivate university scientists to collaborate with budding high school-level scientists.

During the conversation I thought of Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

In his book “Outliers,” Malcom Gladwell wrote about the access Gates had as a high school student to computers at a time when computer access even for college students was very difficult to come by.

Gates had an advantage and he had the ability and the curiosity to take advantage of it, spending hundreds if not thousands of hours learning to program.

Think about how that advantage changed our world.

McKelvy and Boisvert were making sense to me. We’ve got to find a way to give our most promising high school scientists access to the tools that will enable them to do college-level work and maybe someday change our world.

What do you think, Science Foundation Arizona?

We might, just might, open the pipeline to a gusher of talent.

• Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com.

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