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All STEAMed Up: Retirement Takes an Unexpected Turn to an Elementary School

February 23, 2018
by Alan Wechsler

At Eagle Elementary School, located in a  suburban district in New York’s Capital Region, 12 fourth and fifth-graders are inventing. Two students are trying to work the bugs out of a miniature electronic sliding door. Another team is setting up the tiny equivalent of a washing machine drum. Still others are building a robotic fan.

It’s an after-school program for kids to learn about STEAM (the acronym for science, technology, engineering, art, and math), a buzzword that’s starting to replace the more popular “STEM” as a point of focus for kids. And the man behind it is Paul Wing, who holds a 1971 Berkeley doctorate of engineering in operations research, which refers to the use of mathematical tools to solve complex, real-world problems. Now 76 and well into retirement, Wing was looking for a way to bring technology to young people.

Bethlehem School District students at work at Wing’s STEAM program.
“It was something I’ve thought about for a number of years,” said Wing. “I wanted to make the district better.”

Over the past three years, Wing has provided about $60,000 to the Bethlehem School District, in the form of annual grants that go toward funding of STEAM-related programs. His funding has paid for technology upgrades to tech classrooms in the high school, robotics programs in three elementary schools, 3D printers in the high and middle schools and an aerial photography program that includes drones and funding to help two teachers get their FAA-issued drone operator’s license.

The idea is to show students of all ages how STEAM can be applied in the real world, instead of just talking about the science of, say, physics or biology. There’s no shortage of interest. When the Eagle program was announced at the start of the school year, more than 80 4th and 5th graders applied. They used a lottery system to pick the 12 accepted for the fall session, and 12 more will be offered a spot in the spring.

“All I’m trying to do is open people’s eyes—students, teachers, the public, parents,” Wing said. “I want as many kids as possible to take advantage of all opportunities that exist.”

Wing earned his engineering degrees in the 1960s, earning a bachelor’s degree at Princeton and moving to Berkeley in 1965 to begin a long period of graduate study. It was a time of unrest at the university, as on many campuses around America. The third day he was there, there was a student revolt, he recalled. “A couple of times I was walking on the campus and a helicopter flew overhead, tear-gassing the whole campus.”

Wing was living in married student housing at the time with his wife, Priscilla, who was studying at another school to qualify for a California teaching certificate. They joined the Sierra Club and the Peace and Freedom Party, spending free time attending theater and dance events on campus, and hiking in the Sierra Nevada.

In the end, Paul received an M.S. in industrial engineering, an M.A. in statistics, and a doctorate in industrial engineering and operations research before graduating from Berkeley in 1971 and moving back east. He especially credits Berkeley professors for introducing him to the world of statistics, which helped inform his data-driven career over the next four decades. Much of his subsequent work was designing and conducting research studies and surveys, analyzing data and using forecasting models in the fields of education and health care. His C.V., listing papers, speeches, classes taught and software developed, is 12 pages long.

He retired July 10, 2008, expecting to enjoy some free time with Priscilla—by now they had been married for nearly half a century and raised two sons. But only a day into Wing’s retirement, his wife suffered a catastrophic stroke and became wheelchair-bound. He spent the next five years taking care of her, building a handicapped-accessible house with boardwalks and a separate “vacation home” in the backyard. She died in 2014.

After spending so much time taking care of his wife, Wing said, “I had totally lost touch with the scientific and technological breakthroughs…. I realized right away that unless something is done to help students now in elementary, middle, and high school, they will be totally left behind in this period of amazing scientific advancements.”

After thinking about what he might do to help, he contacted the district with his idea for an after-school program to promote STEAM.

“The first three times I approached them I didn’t mention money, and didn’t get a call back,” he said. “The fourth time I mentioned money, and they called me right back.”

Jody Monroe, the district’s superintendent, said Wing was inspiring not just for his funding, but for his personal involvement in the programs. He also helped create (and sits on) a district-wide STEAM committee to help come up with more ideas for ways to integrate the topics into the classrooms.

“There’s definitely a lot of interest in this area across the district,” she said. “It’s definitely going to carry forward. We’re looking to see how we can expand on these opportunities for kids.”

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are projected to grow by 17.0 percent from 2008 to 2018, compared to 9.8 percent growth for non-STEM occupations. STEM workers also command wages that average 26 percent more than non-STEM positions.

The Bethlehem program began in 2015 with Wing providing $20,000 in funding for the high school. In 2016, he provided $16,000 toward 3D printing and $3,500 for an after-school robotics program at an elementary school. In 2017, he expanded his robotics program to two more elementary schools, as well as funding an aerial program at the high school.

Wing, who notes that his contributions make up .02 percent of the district’s $94 million budget, would like to see other people in his position make similar contributions to districts around the country.

“You can do this yourself,” he said. “You can make an impact. That’s the message—you can really accomplish a great deal.”

Apart from providing funds, Wing is also a teacher. He volunteers during the after-school program at Eagle, moving from student to student, helping them understand why their project isn’t working or how they could design it better.

“Aside from the hassles of getting my 6-foot, 6-inch frame in and out of fourth-grade-height chairs, and trying to read computer screens on low tables through my bifocals, it has been a wonderful experience,” he said.

At the program, students don’t need any prompting to be enthusiastic about science. Fifth-grader Anna Baltis and fourth-grader Nicholas Folio labored to get their robotic door to operate properly.

“I’m going to be an awesome inventor when I grow up,” Anna confided. A few minutes later, she announced her success with a rather un-scientific exclamation: “Yay, it works! it works!”

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