Sandia LabNews

Turning teacher in retirement offers a ‘purposeful and enjoyable way’ to help others

JOanna and Mark Perra
JOANNE AND MARK PERRA look on as Ta’Jir Golden keeps a foil loop aloft with the mini Van de Graaff generator. In retirement, the couple has become very involved in science education in Oakland public schools. (Photo by Dino Vournas)

While Mark and Joanne Perra spent their professional careers in laboratories and offices — he was a materials science program manager and research manager at Sandia and she was a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — in retirement, they find themselves back at school. Not as students, but as part of a team of volunteer science educators.

Most Tuesday afternoons you can find them teaching fifth graders about science at the Preparatory Literacy Academy of Cultural Excellence (PLACE) @ Prescott, a West Oakland elementary school in a highly impoverished community. “We never would have envisioned ourselves here,” says Mark. “But it’s truly wonderful to have found a purposeful and enjoyable way to help others using our gifts.”

During their professional careers, the couple financially supported a number of nonprofit organizations and became more directly involved after they retired in 2002. Mark served on the board of directors of the Scientific Technology and Language Institute (STLI), which facilitates the training of medical doctors, nurses, community development leaders, and university students in the country of Kyrgyzstan in central Asia.

This effort was an eye-opening experience for the Perras, enabling them to explore exotic cultures that for more than two millenia had been part of the Silk Road network of trade routes. About three years ago, Joanne began searching for a more family friendly, local opportunity for service and came across Faith Network of the East Bay (http://www.faithnetwork. com/index.html).

A dream realized

She was drawn to Faith Network’s Science Horizons, which partners with schools and informal science centers to provide science enrichment programs to low income, predominantly minority students in grades K-12. “It held the potential for simultaneously engaging our mutual love for science, the outdoors, and children. I did some tutoring in a high poverty area as a college student and had long dreamed of returning to this,” explains Joanne.

The couple initially saw themselves working one-on-one with students or in more of a background role, but as they learned more about the vast need for science enrichment, they saw that with their professional and personal experience, they could offer their skills to larger groups of students.

“What we found most compelling was that we could leverage our interests and experience in science and outdoor education to make a significant difference in the lives of children in great need,” Mark says. “Even a small contribution of time and attention to the children can help turn the tide in the face of a huge and seemingly intractable problem.”

Elementary school science has fallen victim to standardized testing pressure. Because science doesn’t appear on standardized tests in California until the fifth grade, many public schools have de-emphasized teaching the subject to allow more time for language arts and math.

On top of that, science can be a challenge for classroom elementary school teachers as most don’t have backgrounds in science and carrying out hands-on activities essential to teaching the subject takes precious time. In inner-city Oakland, these problems are compounded.

“As a newly designated ‘science focus school,’ and one that is working hard at improving the quality and quantity of our science instruction, we greatly appreciate the support of Mark and Joanne and our other volunteer scientists, who bring their deep understanding of and enthusiasm for science to our students,” says Lorraine Mann, a science specialist at PLACE.

Projects kids can relate to

Using Full Option Science System (FOSS) materials, a research-based science curriculum developed by the Lawrence Hall of Science and UC Berkeley, the Perras usually spend several sessions of the weekly afterschool science club teaching basic scientific concepts like electricity and magnetism through simple experiments. Last spring, the students made their own loudspeakers using wire, magnets, and a bowl.

“They were astounded that they could make an object that could produce beautiful music and intelligible speech,” says Mark. “They could really relate to this project — every kid loves music. We played their favorite musical groups from iTunes, experimented with changing variables on the speakers themselves, and used a “tone generator” to study the relationship between vibrations and sound.” In addition to feeling the vibrations and hearing the sound, the students could see and measure the relationships between ampli amplitude and frequency for various musical notes by using a spectrum analyzer app on an iPad.

The Perras have sought opportunities for connecting Oakland schoolchildren with the vast science resources available in the Bay Area. They’ve started networking with Lawrence Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories, UC-Berkeley Engineering, and Sandia/California.

When Mark and Joanne heard about Sandia’s Family Science Night (FSN) program through Joel Lipkin, another Sandia retiree who volunteers his time with FSN, they saw a perfect fit. As Sandia/California’s signature community outreach program, FSN brings handson science and math activities to more than 6,000 local elementary school students and their families each year. Each activity uses everyday household materials like coffee filters, baking soda, straws, and glue to explore basic scientific concepts like aerodynamics, magnetism, and chemical reactions.

Program reaches more than 50 schools

Sandia/New Mexico began its FSN program in 2001 and now reaches more than 50 schools each year. Sandia/ California piloted FSN at two schools in the spring of 2005 and now reaches about 30 schools each year. Because of limited resources, Sandia/California offers FSN only in Livermore and the neighboring cities of Pleasanton, Dublin, Tracy, Discovery Bay, and Brentwood.

“Because of Mark and Joanne’s dedication to PLACE @ Prescott, we agreed to hold a special demonstration Family Science Night at the school to enable the Science Horizons volunteers to incorporate some of our activities and ideas into their program,” explains Sandia/California community relations officer Stephanie Beasly.

Four local elementary schools were invited to participate. The event, says Mark, was a huge success, drawing a larger turnout of parents and children than any similar school event in memory.

“The FSN volunteers and coordinators came well equipped to foster ties among parents, schools, and children, and to spur a broader and deeper interest in science,” he adds. “It is vital to make inner-city schools a welcoming place for family members, to engage families in supporting their children’s academic success, and to strengthen connections to local institutions. On all counts, this is what FSN does.”

Overwhelmed by the excitement

Mann says that FSN was better than she had imagined it could be. “I was overwhelmed at the excitement and the intense focus of students at the stations. The most surprising part of the evening was seeing how involved the parents, and even the grandparents, became in the experiments. It was truly a family event,” she says. “The focus and perseverance I witnessed even among young students was remarkable. And I will never forget the incredulous joy my kindergartners expressed when they pushed a skewer through a balloon and it didn’t pop!”

Mark and Joanne also organized several extra exhibits, including a rocket launch, mini Van de Graaff generator for levitating and repelling lightweight conductive objects, reversible thermoelectric generator, vortex tube, balloon helicopter, and atmospheric mat. To encourage attendance, they donated a one-year family membership to the Chabot Space and Science Center as a raffle prize.

The point of it all — both FSN and Mark and Joanne’s efforts — is to spark a lasting curiosity in science.

“It has been our delight to cultivate academic and life skills in at-risk kids: to speak words of confidence and possibility into their lives, to ascribe high value to them, and to hold up high expectations for them. We also work hard to plant aspirations that could be held for years to come, to help kids envision a different future for themselves and to encourage them to pursue their goals relentlessly,” says Mark.

“It is our hope and dream that, ultimately, we could help a girl see that she could become a computer scientist, writing computer code when she grows up — rather than conforming to the ‘code of the street.’ Likewise, we would be thrilled if we could help a boy grow up knowing that he can earn respect because of his social, scientific, or artistic contributions — rather than demand respect because he possesses the most powerful firearms on the street.”