Friday, Nov. 2, 2007

Professor commits land for ‘serious scientific students’

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Numerous ideas raised by business, education and government leaders to increase the pool of students entering scientific and engineering fields at a Montgomery College forum in Rockville this week came down to this: getting more money.

And Donald Day, a professor of science, math and engineering at the college, is putting his money where his mouth is.

Day recently committed a bequest to the college half of 26 acres he owns in southern Frederick County that could be eventually worth at least $1.5 million, he said. The money will go toward a scholarship fund at the community college for ‘‘serious scientific students,” he said. The other half of the land would go toward a similar bequest to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

‘‘I hope to encourage other people in my profession and the community to give a similar planned gift,” Day said. ‘‘Maybe they will figure if a professor can do this, they can.”

Day was among the participants in the forum Tuesday that featured business leaders such as Norman Augustine, former CEO of Bethesda defense and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. Others included William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland; Jack Lohmann, a vice provost and professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology; and Pradeep Ganguly, director of the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development.

It’s important to get students interested in science early, as young as first grade, incorporating hands-on learning that makes the subjects exciting and interesting, said Augustine, who chaired a National Academy of Sciences committee that issued a report in 2005 that called for significantly more investment in science education.

‘‘We need highly qualified teachers in science and math at the lower grades,” he said. ‘‘Many young people are turned off by math and science by the fourth grade.”

Globalization, which has influenced change in the business community, is doing likewise with education, Lohmann said.

‘‘We’re moving more towards experiential learning,” he said. ‘‘We’re finding that students learn better by doing rather than having people talk to them.”

Problems on the college level include the lack of financial aid for students transferring from a community college to a four-year university, as well as credits that don’t always transfer, Day said. Montgomery College has 803 declared engineering majors this fall, up from about 750 students a year ago, said Elizabeth Homan, a college spokeswoman.

‘‘Based on anecdotal information and data from other large community colleges, we believe that Montgomery College is one of the largest community colleges for engineering majors,” she said.

But without a new science center on the Rockville campus and renovations to two existing science buildings, the college could be forced to turn away students, said Brian K. Johnson, Montgomery College president.

College leaders continue to work on a new life sciences business park and incubator on the Germantown campus. Construction is also under way for a cultural arts center at the Takoma Park-Silver Spring campus expected to be finished late next year.

Montgomery County has some innovative workforce training programs, Ganguly said. Life science employees are in high demand in the county, especially lab technicians, he said.

More mentorships, a loan payback program for graduate students who agree to teach high school science classes and transferring money from high school sports to science education were among other ideas expressed at the forum.

Augustine said public and private leaders are taking the science panel’s call for more investment in education to heart. He noted that Congress recently approved a $43 billion bill to address the situation.

‘‘I’m optimistic that steps are being taken,” Augustine said.