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Retired Scientists Share Their Knowledge with Students, Teachers

In many American communities, retired scientists are invited to local schools to share their knowledge and experience with science teachers and students. Those retirees are volunteers with RE-SEED. As Faiza Elmasry reports from Montgomery Village Middle School in Maryland, this program works well when good chemistry sparks among three generations in one classroom.

"I get a lot of pleasure from working with children," said David Weiss. "As the old saying goes: 'we are at stage where we'd like to give back something.'" Mechanical engineer David Weiss spent more than 50 years working in the aerospace industry for General Electric and in consulting for Booz, Allen & Hamilton International. For the last 10 years of his career, he helped start a new engineering graduate program at the University of Maryland dealing with reliability and safety. Mr. Weiss retired five years ago, but he didn't stop working.

"I saw an article in one of my engineering publications about this RE-SEED program having been started at Northeastern University in Boston, and I contacted them," he said. "And we went from there. We had 18 volunteers in our first class five years ago and we went to work in ten different schools in Montgomery County."

Mr. Weiss and his fellow volunteers went to work as part of RE-SEED, which stands for "Retirees Enhancing Science Education through Experiments and Demonstrations". Professor Christos Zahopoulos of Northeastern University School of Engineering is the director and founder of the program. "We started the program with six people in 1991 in Boston, Massachusetts. Since then we have trained close to 450 people, and we have a presence in 10 states right now," he said. "And our people have offered 400,000 hours of their lives."

Retired scientist Dave Weiss says the RE-SEED program targets 12 to 14 year olds when they take their first formal science class, and study basic topics such as measuring time, force, motion and gravity.

"The goal of this program is to interest kids in this critical age, sixth, seventh and eighth grade, in a future in science and engineering," said David Weiss.

Each week, Mr. Weiss tries to spark that interest at Montgomery Village Middle School. Science teacher Lara Hilton says his participation in her class helps students see how relevant scientific knowledge is to the outside world.

"It is nice for them to see an actual scientist. When they see Mr. Weiss they think, 'he is a scientist, you are a teacher.' We both have an idea of what we want to get across in a class period," said Lara Hilton. "We have an idea for the lab activity that we are going to do. He listens to what I have to say, and he is free to jump right in and pick up on anything that I missed. And when he is talking, I do the same. We work together with lab groups, so we can go around and see how different groups are working."

Science teacher Dominic Ambrosi has also worked with RE-SEED volunteers, including Mr. Weiss. He says the retired scientists add a wealth of knowledge to the classroom discussion, some, more successfully than others.

"A lot of people have the knowledge, but can they present it? I have had good fortune working with Dave Weiss, that he can present the knowledge," said Dominic Ambrosi. "He and I do work it out. Sometimes, he says something and the kids do not understand it, and I have to try to put it in other words. That tends to work out, but we've had some people who have a hard time presenting the information to the students."

RE-SEED director Christos Zahopoulos agrees that training is important so that the retired scientists can engage students in active learning.

"What really differentiates this program from anything else that exists in the country that uses scientists and engineers are two things," said Christos Zahopoulos. "One is the long training we provide to our participants, close to 40 hours of training. Second, we ask them to make a year long commitment when they spend roughly, on average, a day a week in the class supporting the teachers."

Mr. Zahopoulos says the idea of the RE-SEED program also took root in Sweden a few years ago, after a group from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences visited the United States and saw how the program works.

In Maryland, RE-SEED coordinator Dave Weiss is spreading the word about the program among his former colleagues, trying to recruit more volunteers. He also goes to local schools to convince teachers to open their classrooms to this learning experiment of a weekly visit from a retired scientist.