Thursday, May 12, 2005


Now we only need 10 of these in every state and we're fine

Especially Kansas.
Exciting students about science

ASHEVILLE — As an engineer, Ravi Gorthala deals every day with complex equations, but there are numbers that scare him.

Like the statistic that only 2 percent of high school graduates in the United States will go on to engineering graduate school. Or that Europe produces three times as many engineering graduates as the United States each year while Asia produces five times as many.

Gorthala admits he’s no educator, but he thinks he may have a solution to a growing problem.

On Tuesday, he unveiled plans for Think Tek Learning Lab, a free after-school program for middle and high school students in Buncombe County that could open as soon as January.

Think Tek could introduce under-performing students to technology, letting them get their hands on such devices as a transparent motor or a fuel cell. They could make plastic prototypes with computer-assisted design software or maneuver flexible cables with miniature cameras the same way that surgeons can see inside the human body.

But mostly Gorthala wants to get young people excited about science.

“There’s a need here, and I can make a difference,” the Asheville resident said. “We’re not competing with the school systems; we’re trying to help them. We want to provide an informal setting to let kids explore a wide range of technologies.”

Through his Connecticut-based engineering firm, Steven Winter Associates, Gorthala applied for an initial $60,000 grant from NASA to plan the pilot program. In July, he goes back to NASA for a $600,000 grant to open and run the learning lab.

NASA has an ongoing interest not only in space exploration, but also in improving education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “If they want astronauts to go into space, they have to increase the level of education,” Gorthala said.

Gorthala and his team introduced educators and other community leaders to Think Tek at a forum at the Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College’s Enka Campus.

“We’re not asking for money or any manpower, but we do have to have community support,” said Terry Messer, the Think Tek project’s marketing director.

After-school classes would run twice a week per semester with 100 hours of lab time, including time to invent and design their own project. Intensive summer sessions with full-day labs would also be offered. NASA would pay for about 400 students in seventh grade and up to attend the sessions each year.

After the initial two years, Gorthala would like to see the lab run on affordable fees paid by parents with some scholarship money available.

Randy Harter liked what he heard.

“I’m open for partnering with anyone who can help us do a better job in what we do,” said the mathematics specialist with Buncombe County Schools.

Yusef Fahmy, an engineering professor at UNC Asheville, wants to see more high school graduates coming into his classroom educated and excited about science and mathematics. Their enthusiasm could be good for the health of the local economy.

“When they come from high school into university, we can reinvest them in society,” Fahmy said. About 90 percent of UNCA’s recent graduates in mechatronics have been able to find work here in the area.

“We’re in the right place at the right time in Buncombe County. In Western North Carolina, we have a concerted effort now to bring in more technology,” Messer said.
In my experience, children are naturally curious about how the world works. All they need is encouragement and opportunity to maintain that curiosity for a lifetime. Let's replicate this experiment a 100 times, a 1000 times over, and we may yet arrest America's steady decline as a nation of knowledge and enlightenment.
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