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It’s not rocket science—but it’s just as important

Retired vet inspires kids to learn, pursue science

Created date

August 21st, 2012

When Dennis McCurdy was a junior in high school, a college counselor arranged a meeting for him with a large animal practitioner. From that day on, Dennis says he knew he wanted to be a veterinarian. Dennis did, in fact, become a doctor of veterinary medicine and later worked as a veterinary pharmaceutical developer. Dennis retired 16 years ago and currently lives with his wife Carol at Tallgrass Creek, an Erickson Living community in Overland Park, Kans. Though retired, Dennis stays actively connected to his field by mentoring local school children, inspiring them to study science the way that counselor did for him many years ago.

Inspiring young scientists

In 1978, shortly after Dennis had moved to Kansas City, he volunteered as a judge at a local school science fair. By that point, Dennis had been working for many years as a researcher, and a light bulb went off for him during the fair. I listened as a judge to these projects, and almost all of them failed, Dennis recalls. These poor kids were crying that their projects didn t work, and I realized these kids needed help on the front end of these projects. Dennis discovered Science Pioneers, a Kansas City nonprofit organization that organizes a large annual science fair and provides other learning opportunities for local students. He talked to the organization s leadership and presented his idea that science professionals help kids in the beginning stages of their science projects, instead of simply judging them and giving feedback after the fact at the fairs. Science Pioneers liked the idea, and Dennis has been working as a volunteer ever since. Every November, Science Pioneers invites scientists from a number of different fields and students from more than 40 school districts to meet at a local university. The kids present their science project ideas, and the professionals give them guidance on how to best execute the experiments steering them away from ideas that are likely to fail and toward projects that will succeed, and, hopefully, spark an interest in studying science. For instance, one kid wanted to study whales and sharks in his basement, Dennis says with a laugh at the student s overly ambitious notions. So, we talked to him about his idea, and instead he wound up doing a study on zebra fish and it worked. Over the years, Dennis says a growing number of science professionals from Environmental Protection Agency officials to retired dentists to university graduate students have volunteered their time helping local students develop better science projects that result in more meaningful learning experiences. He says it has been rewarding working with fellow scientists who reap a great deal of satisfaction from mentoring students, but the most gratifying aspect has been changing kids lives for the better. What is really neat is when you see a kid smile at you in the science fair, Dennis says. What is even greater is when a kid graduates from medical school, and says, What you did inspired me to do this.

Bringing scientific research to life in local schools

Dennis doesn t limit his mentoring to the annual science fair project. He also volunteers on his own in several local schools to teach students about science in a way that is accessible. For example, to teach kids about microbiology, Dennis leads them in an experiment in which each student touches a petri dish with dirty hands, then with hands washed with soap, and, finally, with hands cleansed with sanitizer. Dennis assists the classes in tabulating the results to determine which cleaning method is most effective in preventing the growth of bacteria. It relates to their life now, he says, even if they don t understand what microbiology is. First the kids hypothesize about which method is going to do best, and then they ask questions. Every child in class participates, and then we report the results. Many of the schools are operating on tight budgets, Dennis says, so simply teaching science can be a struggle, and few schools are able to expose students to scientific research. That is why when Dennis visits classrooms, he uses interactive and relatable methods that grab students attention and capture their imaginations. At first, many of these kids have no hope whatsoever, Dennis says. Then, all of a sudden, they will say, I can do this. It is absolutely rewarding.