BUFFALO, N.Y. — Lavone Rodolph, a University at Buffalo
PhD student in computer science and engineering, was visited by
nostalgia last summer as he worked with the teachers of the school
district he once attended.
At Hutchinson Central Technical High School (Hutch Tech), his
alma mater, he helped computer technology teacher Mary Ziewers
develop an Android programming course that will teach students how
to design, implement and deploy Android apps.
For a biology instructor at Burgard High School, he organized a
trip to the Buffalo Museum of Science to view the new CSI exhibit,
with lessons aligned to the core curriculum. And with Bruce Allen,
a Burgard physics teacher, Rodolph brought a taste of NASCAR to
class by helping students design and build model race cars. The
teenagers raced the vehicles through a wind tunnel in class and
learned how air flow and car shapes affect speed and velocity.
Rodolph was also instrumental in securing funding for the project
and a related field trip.
Rodolph’s work was part of the Interdisciplinary Science
and Engineering Partnership (ISEP), a five-year program that aims
to improve science education in the Buffalo Public Schools.
The program is led by UB, Buffalo State College, the Buffalo
Public Schools and the Buffalo Museum of Science, and the focus is
on providing teachers with new skills and resources to increase
inquiry-based, interdisciplinary hands-on learning activities in
About 60 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)
teachers are participating this year. Among other benefits, they
receive help on a weekly basis from UB STEM graduate students like
Rodolph. Corporate scientists also donate their time to assist
teachers. Researchers worked with teachers over the summer, and all
will join classes throughout the school year to assist with
After hearing about a graduate assistant position offered
through ISEP, Rodolph jumped at the opportunity to work with his
old high school and share his interest in computers with
While attending Hutch Tech, Rodolph studied computer technology
and, much to his mother’s dismay, took computers apart at
home. His passion for tinkering with electronics led him into a
career as an embedded software engineer for defense contractor
Northrop Grumman. However, after a layoff, which he describes as a
blessing in disguise, Rodolph received the opportunity to return to
Now a PhD student, Rodolph heads to the high schools he assists
with the goal of making science as interesting to students as it is
“I can relate to the students because I was once in their
shoes,” says Rodolph. “I want them to see science as
something fun, and not just as a class.”
Mwita Phelps, also a Hutch Tech graduate, has the same goal.
Phelps, a UB alumnus and staff scientist at biotechnology
company Life Technologies, learned about ISEP through a news
article covering the program. The article drew his attention when
it mentioned his former UB chemistry professor, Joseph Gardella
Jr., who is also the ISEP project leader.
Wanting to become involved, Phelps invited Gardella to Life
Technologies to present on ISEP. The meeting resulted in several
other scientists joining the program as mentors and instructors.
Through the program, Phelps plans to set up career days and
educational field trips to Life Technologies for students. He will
also help teachers design experiments that can be taken back to the
“ISEP will provide an experience that typically
doesn’t occur until later down the career path at the college
level, where people begin to do internships,” Phelps
Phelps, who has a doctorate in chemistry from Pennsylvania State
University, disagrees with the common assumption that only the
students at the top of the class go on to become scientists.
“People are not born scientists,” he says.
“Scientists and engineers need good problem-solving skills,
and these can be developed through experience.”
Through several after-school programs, Phelps has worked to help
minority students prepare for careers in science and engineering.
He has taught chemistry to high school students through the Bridges
to Chemistry program under the SUNY Louis Stokes Alliance for
Minority Participation (LSAMP).
Also, he has worked with the Science, Technology, Engineering
and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP), which aims to
increase the number of U.S. students who receive college degrees in
Phelps wants students to become contributors to technology and
society, whatever field they choose. He adds, “The idea is
for students to take away from the experience more confidence in
themselves and their ability to pursue science-based