Campus News

Through science, alumni give back to Buffalo schools

Lavone Rodolph and Mwita Phelps.

From left, Lavone Rodolph and Mwita Phelps, alumni of Hutchinson Central Technical High School, are helping to improve hands-on learning opportunities for students in Buffalo schools.


Published June 19, 2014

“I can relate to the students because I was once in their shoes. I want them to see science as something fun and not just as a class. ”
Lavone Rodolph, PhD Student, Department of Computer Science and Engineering

Lavone Rodolph, a 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 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 also was 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 science classes.

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 are joining classes throughout the school year to assist with projects.

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 students.

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 to 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 school.

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 for him.

“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.

UB alumnus and staff scientist at biotechnology company Life Technologies, Phelps 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 also will help teachers design experiments that can be taken back to the classroom.

“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 says.

Phelps, who has a doctorate in chemistry from Pennsylvania State University, disagrees with the common assumption that only 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).

In addition, 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 those fields.

Phelps wants students to become contributors to technology and society, whatever field they choose. “The idea is for students to take away from the experience more confidence in themselves and their ability to pursue science-based careers,” he adds.