10:35am

Wed December 7, 2011
Education

Why a Buffalo scientist is asking for your vote

Scientist Bill Duax is campaigning for votes.

On his subway ride to work at the Hauptman-Woodward Institute (HWI) in Buffalo, he wears a tangerine-colored homemade sign safety-pinned to his coat.

This sartorial strategy tries to inspire his fellow public transit riders to cast a ballot for him in a national online competition that would boost Duax's acclaimed after-school science program.

Science is "like mining for gold"

During the past half decade, Duax (pronounced DOO-acks) has paid for HWI's High School Mentoring Program out of his own pocket. His efforts - and the enthusiasm of past students - have made him a finalist in the Time Warner Super Connector contest, which will award $10,000 to the program garnering the most votes by December 10.

That cash infusion would go a long way in boosting a successful program.

Duax's efforts enable 30 high school kids a year to learn about science with the state-of-the-art computers and labs of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

The experience encourages teenagers to learn the value of scientific thinking by learning outside of a traditional classroom environment, Duax says.

"They learn that science isn't something that has a rapid success rate. [They learn] that it takes a lot of hard work - that science changes from day to day," says Duax. "If you get a lead, it's like gold mining: If you suddenly see a thread that's leading over there, you go over to where the gold is."

Stoking STEM excitement

Yet American high schoolers are infamous for their overall disinterest in the so-called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math.

In New York, SUNY's STEM classrooms are so devoid of domestic students that the college system has pledged to import 14,000 international students to major in these fields by 2014.

"Many young people are interested in science if you look at statistics," says Duax. "[But] interest in science in young people declines. They're more interested in it in first grade than second, than third. All down the line it disappears."

HWI's after school program looks to counter that trend - although it's more about challenging students without the pressure that comes with grades, class rank and honors programs.

"This is a program designed to help young people achieve their potential," Duax says. "They may not end up being in science. But what I hope they're going to learn here is what their potential is. 

"I do not think that most people in the world achieve half their potential. And I'm hoping that these people will achieve their potential because the world will be a better place if they do."

Splitting the prize money

Duax is 70 years old and shows no signs of slowing down. He's the embodiment of enthusiasm and is likely more energetic than many of the teenagers he's mentored over the years. Duax's passion sticks with them - as evidenced by the gushing letters he receives from thankful alumni of the HWI program.

"It's that kind of feedback that will keep me going," Duax says. "It will be awhile before my battery runs out."

If Duax prevails in the national competition, the $10,000 will be used to pay his students minimum wage so they'll have a little money to take with them to college.

He also admits HWI pizza parties may become slightly more extravagant.

While more than 10,000 people have voted for Duax in the Time Warner Super Connector competition so far, he currently stands in fourth place. Voting ends this Saturday.

His pitch is embedded above.