It’s not often you get to meet a true dynamic duo. After corresponding with Bill and Shirley Mars, I think I’ve found just such a pair. I met Bill when he helped out as one of two mentors for the iGEN Student LED Challenge team from Falcon Academy of the Creative Arts in Mogadore, OH. Bill, director of R&D for DipTech Systems, heard about the LED Challenge and recommended it to his local school. And then, even though his and Shirley’s 10 children are grown and none of their passel of grandchildren are in that school, took the extra step of volunteering to help.
When asked what drove him to be a mentor, here is what Bill had to say, “When I was in middle school, I was very interested in electronics. My parents had no expertise in electronics, but arranged for me to spend some time with an electronics technician who worked for the same company as my father. My mentor taught me many things about electronics (including how to properly solder!) and really got me started in my career. It was great to 'pay back' some of that mentoring help that got me started in electronics back to the community through the LED Challenge team.”
The team of 5th graders he mentored, one of the two youngest teams participating in the Challenge, created a rotating model of a group of classrooms with a Goodyear blimp hovering over the entire scene and won the certificate for best teamwork for their age. You can see their project here.
I contacted Bill to get some feedback on his mentoring experience and ended up also hearing from his seemingly indomitable wife Shirley who has served on the board of not one, but two different schools for a total of 10 years. She helped out on the Falcon Academy LED team, too, and had some strong opinions to share about the state of technical education in their area.
Q: Do you think your local school system does enough to interest students in pursuing careers in electronics? Bill: No. Activities such as science fairs and after-school science clubs, etc. were instrumental in helping me to become interested in a career in electronics. These activities sometimes have been negatively impacted by budget cuts to schools and pressure from teacher unions to discourage teacher participation in after school activities. Shirley: No! Most schools in our county teach biology, chemistry, physics, and general science. They get very little, if any, exposure to electronics. Participation in local science fairs used to be mandatory, and they offered youth an opportunity to be exposed to a variety of the sciences. There is very little interest in them in our district now. Teachers need more training in the area of electronics, and students need to be exposed to electronics earlier than high school. After-school electronic clubs would be helpful, but schools struggle with funding, and very few teachers would offer to advise a club without being paid for their time. Funding for schools continues to be cut and lack of programs is the result. There needs to be creative ways to encourage schools and electronic businesses to network in developing programs to expose students to electronics.
Q: Do you think the quality and quantity of the education in your local schools adequately prepares students to pursue higher education and eventual careers in electronics? If not, what measures do you think could or should be taken to reach that goal?
Bill: No, there is always room for improvement. It was interesting to see how the LED Challenge project sparked interest in some of the students. The students really enjoyed getting to work with their hands on the electronics for this project. Shirley: Students in our local schools are not being well prepared to pursue careers in electronics. Our county has a joint vocational school that offers a good electronics program, but it is not offered until the junior and senior year of school. There are about 10 schools that send students to the school, and about 25 students are accepted into the program. Electronics should be introduced in elementary school.
Q: Please describe any particular electronics projects or programs you have heard about or participated in that you think were especially useful to students?
Bill: Our high school had a robotics club in past years. The students came to my company and met our engineers and got to see some robotic systems under construction. Shirley: The high school used to have a science robotics club, but the school discontinued it. The group is now a Venture Group under the Scouting program. They struggle to get funding and a place to meet. The students who participate are excited about their projects, but get little encouragement or recognition from the community in general.
Q: Is there anything about your local school system’s sciences programs that I haven't asked you about that you'd like to comment on?
Shirley: It seems that schools do more “teaching to the test” than hands on learning. After serving on our local school board for 8 years, we started a creative arts community conversion school which integrates the arts into the core curriculum. All subjects are taught integrating the arts in a very hands-on way. After only one year of operation, our scores were excellent in every subject. When I assisted my husband in mentoring the LED Challenge group, I loved watching the students get excited every time that he walked through the door. They loved learning how to etch a circuit board, solder, and connect circuits. Given the opportunity to learn as they did, I believe most students would respond as excitedly as they did.
Q. What could the electronics community do to help others become mentors for students interested in engineering and science?
Bill. Students today have the vast wealth of the Internet available to them to study and learn about electronics, science, and engineering. However, students still need someone to get them excited about the possibilities and encourage them to learn and explore. TV shows glamorize doctors, lawyers and police, but relatively few TV programs encourage careers in electronics and science.
Bill Mars is currently the director of R & D for DipTech Systems of Kent, Ohio. Diptech Systems designs and builds computer controlled equipment for producing dipped and coated products for medical, industrial, and automotive applications.
Shirley Mars is a mother of 10, a Field School Board Member for 8 years, and Falcon Academy of Creative Arts Board Member for 2 years.
Whatever Bill did, he did a good job. The Falcons' project looked a bit crude at first glance, but given that these kids were only grades 5 & 6 they did an amazing job, they made full use of the LEDs and 7-seg displays, used both the PIC and a 555/4017 to drive them, and did all this on rotating platform. If Bill and the teachers can can get this kind of work out of such young kids, they'll go far.