Wonder Lake Resident Takes on Math and Science Education in McHenry County

A friend of mine got this email and forwarded it to me. It’s from Wonder Lake’s White Oaks Bay resident Jeff Gerhardt.

After reevaluating his life, he decided to concentrate on “developing a series of STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in 2003 called Focus On NASA.”

As you can read below, he and others made it work in the inner city. Now, they want to bring it to McHenry County, but their funding fell through. They are looking for space to house the program and funding.

More information about what is needed can be found here.

If you are interested in helping out, here’s the sponsorship sign-up form.

Pictures come from the Focus on NASA Gallery.

Here is the still uncompleted web site.

A forum for teachers and students can be found here.

The Future of Science and Math

Education in McHenry County

Greeting McHenry County Residents,

I write this to you as a resident of Wonder Lake and a person who loves what our county has to offer. I also write this as a person who is concerned with the future of our youth in McHenry County and indeed the entire nation.

This is a long email, and I do apologize for that, but the issue is important and one that I have been working on now for years. I also apologize if you get multiple copies of this. I have been searching for people who I feel could have an impact within their community on the future of education, and its possible that in creating all the different lists of people, you may have ended up to two lists.

What I ask is that you please read both this email and the attached documents. Understanding the issue and the effort behind its resolution is half the battle to reaching the goal.

There is a little bit of a story behind this and I hope you will indulge me. I feel that understanding of motivations helps people to recognize the legitimacy of an effort.

Several years’ back I was splitting my life between family, a business career, participation in a Rotary club, my church and a part time adjunct professor at Northwestern Business College (Not to be confused with Northwestern University). You might say I was doing some searching within myself by pulling my life in multiple directions. I had reached the pinnacle of one career found it wholly unsatisfying and started a new career. The reason why I became an adjunct teacher was because of that sense of seeking I was going through at the time.

I had moved to Naperville at the urging of my (then) wife. I was active in one of the local Naperville Rotary Clubs, the one that has that “House of Dreams” raffle and was visiting another Club promoting the then current permutation of that raffle. While there I witnessed a presentation by a man who was a successful business person who sold all he had acquired in his life to start up a foundation in Eastern Europe with the focus to open up children’s hospitals. The presentation was quite moving. In fact it moved me down to the core of the soul. Had I not had the responsibility of my own daughter to finish raising, I might have chased off and followed the man. But I knew at that moment my life had changed forever.

The speaker gave it all away (all of his life’s tangible assets), to do what was needed to solve a problem of great need.

So after a period of several months of self-examination, I too changed the direction of my life. After that meeting I looked back upon my life and started to re-evaluate the concept of success. As a geek running an Internet company the question was in what form that redirection would take for me. All I needed was a problem of great need a little closer to home. My part time role as a college science and technology teacher was the answer to that question.

Because I have had a reasonably successful career as a geek (you can go to Wikipedia for bio or google me if you like), one thing I learned long ago was that it was a fatal management error to ever judge others by the same standards as I measured myself. But that said, I could not believe how ill prepared the majority of high school graduates were for college level IT and Science classes. They did have superior math skills to students in the past, but their ability to solve problems and science aptitude was very low.

I began to reach out to high schools and try to offer help to raise the content bar, but found that the established educational construct was a difficult thing to change. I felt the only solution was for me to find like minded people, develop a new kind of science and math curriculum and deliver it as an after school program to help those students that I could reach.

It was not long before I found I was involved with an agency in Chicago serving low-income at risk youth. A assembled a group of very dedicated people who created a program teaching those youth the technology skills they needed to obtain jobs and live productive lives. That program was called the Youth Community Technology Project or YCTP. Very quickly we were providing educational services to a remarkably large number of youth.

In providing this service to our “At Risk” youth demographic; we began to find that youth of all races, ethnicity’s, religions and economic strata were attracted to the unique program construct that we had developed for YCTP. Blending youth that were not “at risk”, was a benefit to the program as we could supplement the overhead of the cost of our At Risk youth within the construct of an After School program.

Over that next year, my associates and I went back to the drawing board. We took that single program and morphed it into a new kind of curriculum and delivery methodology. We felt our programs connected better to youth in general than the “traditional” educational construct with the major goal of improving math and science competencies.

There is no question of the need for this. Everyone recognizes the dramatic need that exists in all schools to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs. Our University systems are filled with students from around the world, because the youth from our own school systems do not apply in the numerical percentages that they once did in the past. Indeed the issue remains if they could even qualify. The result is our medical, science and engineering professions import talent from around the world as we continue to fall short of supplying our own needs.

There is plenty of blame to go around for this problem. We have done this to ourselves as a culture and a country. If your education system is designed to improve testing scores and thus improve the ability to get into college; than our present education system is succeeding in its construct. The simple fact is, the outcomes we have been pursuing are being addressed. But, this success is at what cost?

Many schools have had to eliminate Music Education, Physical Education, Applied Technology (shop classes) and many more programs have been eliminated to provide funds simply to teach to the testing standards. As a college level teacher, I can tell you anecdotally of the result on science and engineering.

We may now teach computer aided design in our high schools, so the kids today can draw very pretty pictures. But because science and in particular applied technology (shop class) options have narrowed, many of our youth entering engineering programs can not design something that can be built (practically and economically), much less make it work.

In witnessing this trend we developed a program series construct that achieved three unique goals in-concert. The first goal was to create a delivery methodology that appealed to youth and reconnected them with the educational process. The second goal was to create curriculum and program focus that would raise interest in youth toward STEM post secondary education and careers. The third goals was to provide those youth with a construct that offered youth opportunities to reach beyond their own perceived capabilities.

What we created was a program series called FOCUS ON NASA. This program series turned out to be even more successful than we dreamed. This was true in particular for those kids that could be called or self identified as “Geek Kids.”

A number of adults have been offended by my use of the term “geek kid”. But I was one of those kids as a youth and so I understand well the feeling of being an outsider, not fitting in with the main body of kids. The truth is that there exists many different kinds of geek kids, not just those interested in science and technology. There are band geeks, theater geeks, all kinds of kids that fit that general mode. They as a group are average to above average in intelligence but are OFTEN disconnected from the educational process. High School counselors can tell you of the scores of kids that go through their office that have the facilities to handle high school, but they seem disconnected from the process. This is the demographic that we targeted as our core group.

We are now four years into the YCTP/Focus On NASA project and have results to show its merits. What is interesting is how quickly the word spread through the youth population. Our youth are very connected via the Internet in ways previous generations were NOT. The result is we have had kids come to us from all over the Chicago area. Our programs are presently held at the Neighborhood Boys and Girls Club in the Albany Park area of Chicago. And yet, we have kids from as far north as Vernon Hills, as far south as Midway Airport and as Far West as Naperville that have come to participate in our programs.

They come because of OPPORTUNITY. These programs are unique.

We offer different STEM programs that appeal to youth of wide interests. Kids that are interested in band, theater, art and other areas come to us because they know that they will have the OPPORTUNITY to not only participate in interesting (and exciting) programs, but that their personal SKILLS will be valued. Because of our unique program constructs, kids with art skills can be just as important to the success of a program as the kids that already have the technical chops.

Our program list includes:

UGLI: A geek kid drop in center

Eco-Extreme: A program that blends extreme sports with science

YCTP: a· computer refurbishment program

Team Columbia: a small robotics program for Middle schools

B2B: A five discipline applied science program.

BOT-BUS: A robotics advocacy program.

ATX: Companion program to B2B that travels to the Kennedy Space Center and allows youth the experience the “Astronaut Training eXperience”

Team Maddog
: A competitive High-Power· rocketry program

Team Challenger
: An FRC competitive Robotics program (our· varsity sport)
And more to come…..·

The 2006/2007 school year was an amazing one for our programs. Indeed our flagship program called TEAM CHALLENGER posted results that are so high, we have no reference scope in how to judge it. Even those of us inside the program don’t have an experience for comparison to fully recognize this success.

Team Challenger is a competitive robotics program that if I was forced to describe in a single word would call it “intense”.

We participate in the FRC robotics competition sponsored by the organizations US FIRST and NASA. There are over 2100 teams from around the world (Our team number is 2047) that compete in this competition, and the greater professional engineering community looks upon FRC as the most significant and competitive engineering competition faced by high school youth on the planet.

These are not tiny little robots that are glorified Erector Sets. FRC Robots are 30″x 42″ at the base, can stand as high as 6 feet tall, weigh as much as 150 lbs., and can rocket across a 40′ x 60′ competition field at 18 feet per second. These robots cost many thousands of dollars and can take thousands of hours to build. During the time leading up to our first competition last season, our team collectively put in 1874 hours to design, build and test our robot.

Fielding an FRC team is no small undertaking, and is similar in scope to the effort and cost expended on a high school athletic team. Those that participate view it as the ultimate varsity sport of the mind.

FRC based programs have benefited tens of thousand of youth across this country, and TEAM CHALLENGER had a huge impact on those youth in our Chicago program. Here is a sample of the list of achievements for an inner city program:

Team Challenger won the· Xerox Creative Engineering Award for our unique four-wheel Holonomic Drive System, while competing in the 2007 Milwaukee FRC Competition.
Team· Challenger won the Rookie All-star Award at the 2007 Midwest Regional as the best first year team in the Midwest.
Team Challenger qualified for the· International Championships
Team Challenger sent 31 youth and 7 adults to· the 2007 International Championships

Team Challenger recorded the third· highest score in a single match and the largest point differential in a single match (264-4) during that Championship
Team Challenger had a final ranking· of 14th in the world for the 2007.
Team Challenger won NINE Peer Awards· during the 2007 FRC season.
Team Challengers 16 graduating seniors were all· accepted to college, 15 are attending college, one is volunteering for a year at a kibbutz in Israel, 10 were accepted into MAJOR university engineering programs.

Now, why am I writing to you about this program series?

For the better part of the last year I have been looking for people with whom I can partner and potential funders to bring these programs to McHenry County. From a personal standpoint, I would much rather see these benefits go to youth in my own area. We in McHenry County have as much need in improving our schools as the rest of our state.

From a practical standpoint I would enjoy doing this locally and letting one of my associates manage the Chicago programs.

Therefore as I began to form my plans for the 2007/2008 school year, I focused a great deal of effort in funding for delivering Focus On NASA programs to McHenry County. In doing so we had lined up about $55,000 in additional funding to begin the process of starting a Focus On NASA program series in McHenry County.

Press releases in hand and staff already hired, we were informed during the last week of August that the funding had been pulled at the last minute as the corporate sponsor could no longer make good on the commitment of funds. It looked as if we would have to put off a Focus On NASA in McHenry County till the 2008/2009 school year.

This was a disappointment to those youth and teachers that I had spoken with about the program. And in truth it was a disappointment to the people that created Focus On NASA. Our goal is to take what we have learned and bring it to communities across the state.

Good fortune has smiled on us at the last minute, or at least an opportunity. But I need help to take advantage of the two opportunities before us.

First, we have the opportunity for a small $6,000 grant from NASA.

Second, Lt. Governor Pat Quinn has been a supporter of my program and has talked to people that can possibly solve our problem. DCEO (Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity) has made available some possible grant funds if I can put together a team in McHenry County fast.

However, time is very short and I need people to respond quickly if they wish to see these kinds of STEM programs in McHenry County. I need FIVE things and again I need them quickly. All the paperwork for the grant are due November 13th.

1) First and probably most important, I need you to help me to exercise your own part of the 6 degrees of separation. PLEASE pass this on to anyone you know in the County connected to a funding option, and in particular people that own, manage or work in a tech business. Awareness of this program series will go a long way to addressing the other three needs.

2) The second favor is we need a few people or companies to make a pledge of financial support. I say pledge as I will not collect the funds unless sufficient funds are put together to create the Focus On NASA programs. But at minimum I need to raise pledges of at least $10,000 as “matching funds” for DCEO to provide a $50,000 funding channel to get things started in McHenry County.

Our organization is a 501c3 so all donations are tax deductible. If we get the DCEO funding it is more often then not continuous long term annual funding. This would be a solid base to bring the entire series of Focus On NASA programs to McHenry. Long term we need to fund a $150,000 funding channel for each program cluster. My hope is to have several clusters through the county, but the development funds are needed first.

Any business or individual willing to donate should contact me ASAP. Please email to TeamChallenger@gmail.com . In addition to the tax deduction, many of the sponsorships create high visibility for the sponsor. There are also many forms of “in-kind” support, in particular for provisioning the youth drop in center. Two of the documents attached to this email are the sponsor packet.

3) Third, we need businesses in the county that are TECH businesses to step forward and become partners in this process. What I mean by this is NOT cash support (but that would be helpful) but businesses actually willing to partner on the DCEO grant. Typically grants such as this are tied to either jobs or internship opportunities. I need a business, or group of businesses that will each provide a summer internship or two, in a tech related job. If you run a tech business, consider this a FREE human resource opportunity to find the creme of tech savvy youth. Please if your business happens to use robotics, or better yet builds robots, I need to talk to you. Please email to TeamChallenger@gmail.com as soon as possible.

4) Another area of need is physical space to host the programs. Although we do meet in the schools we serve with regularity, because many of our programs are shared by a group of schools, we have the need for Cluster/Community Headquarters facilities in strategic locations around the county. We have one such facility in Chicago. We are also happy to announce that we have had a huge facility donated in Woodstock Illinois that will act as our main facility in the county. We have sufficient space their to build a large machine shop, a full size 40’x60′ FRC playing field as some recreational facilities as well.

This is an opportunity for a property owner to donate the use of a presently unused facility and get a tax deduction. We are looking for facilities in McHenry, Crystal Lake and a location in the west area of the county. If you know of someone are willing to become a partner, please email to TeamChallenger@gmail.com with your contact information and we will call you ASAP.

5) Fifth, we need people who are interested in working with an amazing demographic of youth to volunteer. Our programs have staffers once we get a location established, but we would not survive without volunteers. In particular we look for people with skills related to technology or science. But if you are just a person with a passion for hobbies then we can find a place for you. If you are willing to become a mentor then please email to TeamChallenger@gmail.com and request a mentor information flyer.

Last, although we are doing the best to spread the word to educators. Please tell teachers and administrators that you may know. It may be that it is too late for them to get involved for this school year. But they need to begin the process now to get involved for next year.

My thanks for your patience and indulgence for this long email.

Jeff Gerhardt
Founder of Focus On NASA
Recipient of the 2006 LEADER Award for Curriculum Development

All Photos may be enlarged.

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