Retired engineers work to enhance science education

Jan. 15, 2007
This is the second column from Grace Klonoski of the Optical Society of America (OSA) on "SCIENCE & TECHNICAL EDUCATION: Spotlight on inspiring the next generation of scientists and business leaders."

Spotlight on inspiring the next generation of scientists and business leaders


Meeting brilliant people who make positive and long-lasting contributions is practically a daily occurrence in my work with the Optical Society of America Foundation. Such was the case with Harold Sharlin.

Sharlin is the founder and CEO of the Retired Scientists Engineers & Technicians (ReSET) organization. Established in 1988, RSET is a Washington, DC¿based nonprofit volunteer organization that partners retired scientists, engineers, and technicians with elementary school teachers to improve science motivation and literacy in students from kindergarten through sixth grade. ReSET's mission is to motivate children to discover and explore the worlds of science, math, and technology, and to encourage them to consider careers in one of these exciting fields.

I recently spoke with Sharlin and asked him about his work and the exciting progress ReSET is making.

Q: What inspired you to create ReSET?
Sharlin: In 1988, I was actively volunteering along with other retired professionals. We were interested in really making a difference. Just because we were 65 and older did not mean we were frail. On the contrary, we were an energetic bunch of professionals who were ready to get behind a program that helped the community in a substantial way. My peers encouraged me to organize something.

Given our public schools' critical need for improved science and math learning, and my own background in electrical engineering, starting an organization that utilized the underused resources of retired engineers and scientists seemed like a good idea. But I was wrong; it was actually a GREAT idea. The immediate response to ReSET surprised and pleased me. The school principals were eager to cooperate. The teachers were delighted to have knowledgeable men and women help them support the new emphasis on science teaching. Children were happy to have elderly visitors in class show them how to have fun with science.

Q: How does the ReSET program work?
Sharlin: New volunteers attend an orientation during which seasoned ReSET volunteers talk about their experiences and offer suggestions. ReSET also provides its recruits with any materials they need, and ReSET staff help to lay the groundwork for volunteers to begin working directly in an elementary school classroom.
Volunteers must make a commitment to spend one hour a week during a six-week period performing experiments with their assigned class. Sessions focus on encouraging youngsters to consider careers in science, technology, and engineering by talking about what real professionals do and what kinds of jobs are available. Our volunteers invite the classroom teacher to give input on the experiments to ensure that the children will be challenged appropriately for their learning level.

One of the most popular components of the ReSET program is the field trip, which caps the six weeks of in-class experiments. Past field trips have included the National Institutes of Health, the Goddard Space Center, a PEPCO power plant, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Zoo.

Our students and educators have fun during the learning process. This program provides volunteers with the opportunity to help children make important decisions about their futures by showing them how interesting science, technology and mathematics can be.

Q: What is your vision for ReSET in the years ahead?
Sharlin: This program has shown itself to be a success, and I would like to see it spread across this country and internationally. There are lots of talented science and technology professionals in baby boomer generation who will soon retire. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could convince hundreds or thousands of them to support grade-school children? Our program serves a range of schools, from upper and middle income to lowest economic tiers. Our volunteers are needed and can add value everywhere. But we must catch the interest of students in early years, before they become discouraged by the difficulty of the material and before their teenage hormones kick into gear.

Q: What are ReSET's biggest challenges?
Sharlin: Recruiting and training volunteers is one of our most important activities. We are constantly trying to get the word out. I have found that it is most effective to meet one-on-one with prospective volunteers versus other forms of advertising, so my staff and I do many outreach presentations and meetings throughout the year. The biggest obstacle is getting retirees to overcome the fear of going into the classroom. Once people are trained and give it a try, they are enthralled by the experience.

Like many other nonprofits, fundraising is key to our operation. Our executive director seeks support from foundations and corporate donors. Recently, The OSA Foundation provided us with a grant to fund some of our recruiting and training efforts. They are also encouraging OSA members to volunteer and are providing optics-related demonstration materials and lesson plans.

Q: What kind of feedback do you get from school administrators and teachers?
Sharlin: Our program generates very positive responses. Most often we hear quotes like this one from Katherine A. James, principal of Shepherd Elementary School in Washington, D.C.: "We are certain that ReSET enhances our science program and leads to specific academic achievement, along with development of interest in further science pursuits."

To learn more about ReSET, visit: or e-mail Harold Sharlin at [email protected].

GRACE KLONOSKI is the Senior Director of OSA Foundation and Member & Education Services for the Optical Society of America, 2010 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036; e-mail [email protected];

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