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Chemist Robert Thomas goes back to high school

Retired chemist Robert Thomas volunteers at Sherwood High School, in Montgomery county, Maryland. "Even though I am not part of the faculty, the day I go in to Sherwood HS is now called Thomas Thursday,

A week before his 50th birthday, Robert Thomas was milling around the exhibition halls of an annual conference in San Francisco when his phone rang. It was a message from his boss who wanted to speak to him urgently. He sounded nervous.

Later that night he returned the call. "You know your position is going away," his boss stammered. "...your job is being moved."

"It took me a while to absorb what he was telling me," recalls Thomas, pausing a moment to dip a tea bag in his cup.

AAAS member, Thomas was a twenty-one year veteran of PerkinElmer, a multinational technology company that produces analytical instruments, genetic testing and diagnostic tools, medical imaging components, software, instruments, and consumables for multiple end markets. While there he'd met his wife Donnamarie Seyfried. They have two children Deryn, a freshman at Boston College, and Glenna, a sophomore at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Maryland. "I had contributed a lot, I had always been a very conscientious person and all of a sudden it was gone."

Thomas, 61, was born and raised in Wales. He studied science and engineering at the University of Wales, Gwent, and graduated as an analytical chemist.

In 1979, he joined PerkinElmer where he worked in the lab as a scientist. A few years down the road, he switched positions. "I was working in the marketing group getting an understanding of how equipment is used and then using that information to work with a product development group to design the next generation of instruments." In 1988 he was transferred to the United States. He was let go in 1999.

In the aftermath, Thomas started science writing for magazines and consulting on different projects with corporate clients, among them his former employer ParkinElmer. Accustomed to the corporate rat race, Thomas felt he was not using all his time constructively. "It's not work that keeps me busy five days a week," he laments. 

He considered teaching but bristled on it when he found out the certification process would take 12 months.

One day while flipping through the Washington Post, he spotted an advert that had been placed by AAAS, they were looking for retired scientists to participate in a school volunteer program. AAAS's Senior Scientists & Engineers (SSE) STEM (science, technology, engineering, and  math) volunteer program puts scientists, engineers, and physicians into elementary, middle, and high schools in public schools in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Currently there are about 50 active volunteers who make a 4 to 8 hour commitment every week for the entire school year. Their goal is to demonstrate that science is interesting and fun to learn. Thomas jumped at the chance to go back to school.

He chose to volunteer at Sherwood High School, in Montgomery county, Maryland, which was a 10 minute drive from his house. He teamed up with a chemistry teacher in his late 20's, who saw an opportunity of getting someone with 40 years experience in real world chemistry in his classroom. Over the next couple of weeks, Thomas and the teacher devised a plan. "We decided that I give him my ideas about real world chemistry and tie these into the curriculum," he said.

Through the partnership, Thomas says, holes in the science education system became evident. "The syllabus is geared towards cramming as much information into the students as possible to pass an exam or a test," he said. "They don't focus on what it all really means."

Thomas made sure the classes he put together looked at the application of fundamental principles and not so much on the theory. "I like to be creative by bringing in a lot of touch and feel things, props I can use to demonstrate how it works. For example, when I am talking about atomic spectroscopy, we put metal-impregnated wooden splints into a bunsen burner and observe the different colors produced. Or to demonstrate the different wavelenghts of light produced, I show them how a CD or DVD can separate sunlight into different colors of the rainbow " he said.

As the months wore on, Thomas adjusted to the kids level of learning. "I used to give a talk about how the principles of atomic excitation can be used to measure the elemental concentration of something using atomic spectroscopy and mass spectroscopy...but it was too deep," he said. He switched to the brief experiments, keeping the exercises humorous and throwing in appropriate teenage-friendly jokes. "We also talked a lot about science related topics shown in the media to make it more interesting for the students, such as the popular CSI crime series, or events that led to the nuclear power plant disaster after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan earlier this year\", he explained.

Now in his third year, he reckons he's doing a lot better. "Even though I am not part of the faculty, the day I go in to Sherwood High School is now called Thomas Thursday."

Robert Thomas is a blogger for AAAS MemberCentral, you can read his posts for here.

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  • AAAS Senior Scientists & Engineers
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Retired chemist Robert Thomas volunteers at Sherwood High School, in Montgomery county, Maryland. "Even though I am not part of the faculty, the day I go in to Sherwood HS is now called Thomas Thursday," he says. (Photo: Owen Kibenge)
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