- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

Life:

At 78, after more than 50 years in the work force, David Venezky could just spend lazy days reading books and watching birds. Instead, the retired chemist helps middle school students in his Alexandria neighborhood improve their science skills.

Why?

Because it feels good to give back to the community and hopefully make a difference in these children’s lives, says Mr. Venezky, who retired a few years ago from the Naval Research Laboratory.

“I hope that if I give the students enough enthusiasm about science they’ll retain the information a little better,” Mr. Venezky says.

He is a volunteer with RE-SEED (Retirees Enhancing Science Education Through Experiments and Demonstrations), a program started at Northeastern University in Boston about a decade ago.

The program, which has caught on in 10 other states, provides 40 hours of training for willing retirees with science backgrounds, says its founder and director Christos Zahopoulos. The retirees have to commit to at least one day a week for one year, for free.

“A lot of teachers are not well-trained in the physical sciences, and it really helps them to have someone in the classroom with a strong background, knowledge and experience in that field,” says Mr. Zahopoulos.

At Sandburg Middle School, eighth-grade science teacher Walt Sandford, whose strengths are in earth science, is grateful for the extra set of eyes and ears as well as the deep knowledge of chemistry that Mr. Venezky provides.

Earlier in the year, Mr. Sandford’s students were making soccer-ball-size molecule models out of wires and plastic balls under the instruction of Mr. Venezky, who holds a doctorate in chemistry.

“It was great having Dave here for the chemistry piece,” Mr. Sandford says. “I worried about the pedagogy, and Dave took care of the chemistry content. … He was the good cop, and I was the bad cop. We had a great fit.”

Fourteen-year-old Jon Yoo agrees.

“[Mr. Venezky] does a lot of hands-on stuff, which makes it easier to understand,” Jon says. “He also gave us a lot of one-on-one time, which was really good.”

Aside from regular classroom work, Mr. Venezky also volunteered to help 13-year-old Ben Pryor and 14-year-old Jacob Mcrumb prepare for the Science Olympiad, a national science competition, held at Ohio State University Friday and Saturday.

More than 2,000 high school and middle school students from across the nation and Canada competed. Ben and Jacob, paired as a team, placed 22nd out of 54 in the Can’t Judge a Powder by its Color competition in which they had to identify various powders by running them through tests. They finished 26th out of 54 in a Science Crime Buster contest.

One afternoon before the competition, Mr. Venezky gave the two almost-straight-A students some chemistry problems to solve in preparation for the contest.

For Science Crime Buster, the students had to correctly identify liquid and solid material in a crime scenario.

The fictitious scenario that Mr. Venezky set up went as follows: Someone has been stealing cow and sheep hearts from the biology lab at the University of North Carolina.

By studying different powders, fibers and hairs found at the fictitious crime scene under the microscope, by smell and touch, and by mixing them with other solutions, Ben and Jacob must figure out who the perpetrator was from among a dozen suspects.

“You can tell that this is cotton by the way it’s intertwined,” says Jacob (who will attend Thomas Jefferson High School, a top science and technology school, in the fall) of some of the “evidence.”

“If it’s wool it’s fluffier, and if it’s linen you can’t see the intertwining,” he adds.

“Dr. V,” as the children refer to Mr. Venezky, nods his approval at this explanation.

Mr. Venezky also has given the boys 16 samples of pure and mixed powders. Just a few were found at the crime scene, and the boys have to say which. Under the chemist’s watchful eye, they mix the powders into water, hydrogen peroxide or iodine to see how they react.

As Ben and Jacob work, Betsy Hayward, the head of the school’s science department, stops by. She makes a half-fictitious inquiry:

“We’ll see if we can’t get Dr. Venezky to join the staff next year,” Ms. Hayward says, “and get paid. Wouldn’t you like that?”

Mr. Venezky greets the question with a mere smile while watching the boys, sporting protective goggles and aprons, hard at work. After their allotted time — 45 minutes — they have an answer.

“We find Judy Garland guilty,” says Jacob, who wants to become a forensic scientist, and Ben, who wants to become a veterinarian.

They also state that “Judy” worked in a bakery, which was apparent since her clothes carried both yeast and flour.

“You did very well,” Mr. Venezky says to the boys as the three plan their next meeting.

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More than 450 volunteers have been trained by RE-SEED in 10 states. Combined, they have contributed 400,000 volunteer hours, Mr. Zahopoulos says.

The feedback from students and teachers has been very good, overall, he says. According to the program’s own surveys from the late 1990s, almost 90 percent of the students said they found the program useful.

“We’ve also seen that students pay more attention if someone can tell them how the knowledge [of science] is relevant to the outside world,” Mr. Zahopoulos says.

And the volunteers keep coming back for more. Seventy percent of the volunteers returned to the program after their first year. The program also recently rewarded 10-year volunteers.

However, while the retention rate is good, recruiting is difficult.

Dave Weiss, a retired mechanical engineer, is the RE-SEED coordinator in Montgomery County, and he says recruiting has been very tough lately.

“I don’t know why it’s so hard to find people,” says Mr. Weiss, who is a RE-SEED volunteer at Montgomery Village Middle School.

Mr. Venezky, in his second year of RE-SEED, also has tried to spread the word about the program among his former colleagues and friends with science backgrounds. He says it’s a hard sell because it requires a solid commitment of time.

Mr. Weiss also has met resistance in certain schools, he says.

“I’ve made presentations in schools where we couldn’t find a single interested teacher,” he says.

Judy Kramer, who coordinates the RE-SEED program at Sandburg Middle School, says the program can only work if teachers open up their minds and classrooms.

“It’s important that the faculty is open to collaboration,” Ms. Kramer says. “I find that most middle school teachers are.”

In Mr. Sandford’s case that’s certainly true. He and Mr. Venezky have created a win-win situation, where the students seem pleased and the adults play to each other’s strengths.

Mr. Sandford pinpoints the nature of their collaboration.

“We just have good chemistry.”


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