Lucky in Business, Lucky for STEM

July 9, 2008
Science Philanthropist Mark Gelfand Focuses His Contributions Where They’re Needed

By Mike Bacidore, Managing Editor

Mark Gelfand’s philanthropy is all about science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “I’m focused on STEM education for as many kids as possible,” says the Massachusetts resident. “If there’s a financial need focused on hands-on STEM enrichment for children, then I’m interested in helping. If it’s not STEM, then that’s not my focus.”

A Carnegie Mellon graduate who majored in physics, Gelfand has reluctantly accepted publicity for his generous gifts of time, expertise and money to schools and programs in New England and as far away as Africa.

While Gelfand’s contributions over the years have been almost as random as they are gracious and helpful, the former Pittsburgh steel-mill worker who explains his wealth by proclaiming himself “lucky in business” has found a focus and is using it to ensure what he gives is making the greatest impact in the lives of children.

Gelfand grew up in Cleveland, but two of the more celebrated programs he backs are at his alma mater in Pittsburgh. The Carnegie Mellon Institute for Talented Elementary and Secondary Students and the Leonard Gelfand Center for Service Learning and Outreach both are designed to help individuals and organizations with STEM-related activities.

“C-MITES is science enrichment for kids,” explains Gelfand. “They had a few independently run operations for younger students, and it matched my interests. They had teacher education and a science van, but it was all on a year-to-year basis, so I said, ‘Let’s make this permanent.’ And we folded all of this into a center and gave it legs.” The Leonard Gelfand Center was named for Mark Gelfand’s uncle. “I grew up around the time of the X-15 rocket and the early Space Age,” explains Gelfand. “I always had an interest in electronics. On trash day, I’d collect the old television sets that people would throw out, bring them home and take them apart. Back then, hardware really meant hardware. Then my uncle gave me a shortwave radio kit with vacuum tubes and wires and coils, and it took me about a month of tinkering with it before I got it to work. That locked me into the electronics area of science.”

Nice Work if You Can Get It
“Because I’m their father, my three sons learned at home about computer-controlled milling machines,” says Gelfand. “They were lucky, if they decide they want to pursue this field, because they had that opportunity. But how many parents are like me? How many kids get that chance?”

Gelfand faults the schools, at least some of them, and specifically Newton South High School, typically ranked as one of the top-scoring academic schools in Massachusetts, but according to Gelfand, one of the worst-performing schools in the state when it comes to science. “Everyone thinks it’s great, but it has a low percentage of kids entering college choosing STEM-related majors,” he explains. “I saw it coming when my oldest son, who’s now 25, was still in elementary school. I started a hands-on math club before school.” Gelfand says he continued this project for a few years until the school principal asked him to stop the club because it was taking up students’ time.

That prompted him to volunteer in the Boston Public School System, which ultimately led to some after-school programs. “We made crystal radios. I tried to match it to what they were learning that week.”

What Goes Around Comes Around
While most of us remember the science fair nostalgically, Gelfand sees it as a rejuvenated mechanism for rousing student interest in STEM studies. “The Massachusetts State Science Fair is going like crazy,” he says. “It had waned a few years ago, but it’s astounding some of the projects the kids are doing now. I like science fairs because they’re super-creative. I prefer things that get all of the kids in the school excited. By the second or third year, they see the prizes that have been won and they learn how to do better projects. I’ve been trying to figure out how to connect all of the New England science fairs because I’m looking for things with the potential to reach large numbers of kids with equal numbers of boys and girls.”

Despite the value of all STEM pursuits, one stands out among the children, says Gelfand. “The kids are very interested in robotics,” he says. “That’s the flash. But my interest is really in all science and engineering. Robotics is important, but it’s not the only part of science.”

To Israel and Beyond
On a recent trip with his oldest son, Gelfand worked with some of the Ethiopian at-risk children in Israel. He was so impressed by the children’s eagerness that he and his son flew south and went to the source in Ethiopia. “My son and I spent several hours talking with top people in the government,” he explains. “They consider themselves to be where China was 50 years ago. They think education is their ticket out of poverty. Eighteen years ago, only a small percentage of the kids went to elementary school. Now it’s almost 100%. They want their curriculum to be 70% STEM and 30% culture, so I want to help.”

And he hopes to ignite that same enthusiasm in the U.S. “Most kids are thrilled to learn how to use tools to do things that are dangerous with the right safety equipment,” says Gelfand. “They love it. They’re primed. They want to do it. It’s simple and it’s cheap to teach kids how to build circuits. There’s really no substitute for diving in. Kids spend their summers reading the 20 books on the assigned list, but they don’t even think about science or engineering. In my class, they learn about Torx screwdrivers and how to take things apart and see what’s inside.”

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