Lavone Rodolph graduated from Hutch-Tech in 1999, and Mwita Phelps in 1991.
A lot has happened at their high school since then.
A $31.6 million renovation project, completed in 2008, brought the building into the 21st century.
Now, Rodolph and Phelps are helping to ensure students at Hutchinson-Central Technical High School and 11 other Buffalo Public Schools will keep pace with what’s happening outside their classrooms, as part of a new program that transforms how science is taught in the district.
“The great story about both of these people: They are local kids doing exactly what we think nobody does,” said Joseph A. Gardella Jr., the University at Buffalo chemistry professor leading the project.
Rodolph worked five years as a software engineer for a defense contractor before returning to UB to pursue a doctorate in computer science and engineering. As a graduate assistant for the new program, he divides 20 hours a week between his alma mater, where he helps teach computer technology, and Burgard High School, where he assists a physics teacher in creating and conducting laboratory experiments that reinforce concepts taught in classes.
“I love giving back. It reminds me of when I was a student here,” Rodolph said outside the Hutch-Tech classroom where he helped teach a lesson on applications for the Android operating system.
“I love interacting with the students ... to spark an interest,” he continued. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be computer science. ... We try to encourage, even from a middle school level, to pursue a STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] field.”
Phelps is a scientist at Life Technologies, a Grand Island biotechnology firm where he recruited colleagues to join the program as mentors. Plans for further involvement are in the works, with the support of company leadership.
“For me, it’s rewarding,” Phelps said. “If the work that we are doing can help students – particularly in the Buffalo Public Schools system – become more confident ... pursue science-based careers, I feel that that alone is the reward.”
This Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership program began 18 months ago and is funded by a five-year $9.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
It’s building on a pilot project several years ago at a magnet school in Buffalo.
Leading the initiative are UB, Buffalo State College, Buffalo Public Schools and the Buffalo Museum of Science. Medaille College has signed on, Gardella said, and additional colleges are expected to join.
Supporting partners include Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Praxair and Science Kit.
During each of the grant’s five years, at least 50 teachers are selected to participate in a summer development/research experience that they’re expected to incorporate in their classrooms.
This past summer, Hutch-Tech computer technology teacher Mary Ziewers worked with Rodolph to develop an Android operating system programming course.
“You’re really preparing them,” she said of how the program benefits students. “You’re letting them know what really happens in the workforce, helping them be successful in college.”
Buffalo Public Schools played a role in the success of Rodolph and Phelps, both of whom displayed early signs of their futures in their youth.
“Before I came to Hutch-Tech, I loved taking things apart,” Rodolph said. His mother encouraged him, suggesting that he pursue engineering.
“When I came to Hutch-Tech, that’s what I majored in. I went through the same program these kids are going through right now,” said Rodolph, who earned a master’s degree in computer science and engineering from UB.
Similarly, Phelps said his interest in science dates back at least to seventh or eighth grade, when a science teacher nurtured him.
“She noticed I was doing well in the classes,” Phelps said, and she offered him advice. “My family took an active role in encouraging me to do this, as well.”
Phelps earned undergraduate and graduate degrees locally, was a volunteer researcher at Roswell Park and worked for a Lancaster-based environmental management firm. He earned a doctorate from Pennsylvania State University, where he studied organic chemistry.
Phelps worked several years in medicine development at the Philadelphia office of an international pharmaceutical company before returning to Buffalo to raise his family. He has participated in after-school programs to help minority students prepare for careers in science and engineering, and he taught a transitional chemistry class for new college students.
Both are enthusiastic about what the program can do for students.
“You don’t have to have special talents,” said Phelps. “What’s needed are good problem-solving skills,” which he said can be developed through experience and school training.
“If people can accept that ... we will start to see more students ... deciding they want to be scientists in the future,” Phelps said.
Working with students has Rodolph envisioning a possible future for himself as a professor.
“I really love interacting with students,” he said. “I really love when they get the ‘aha’ moment.”