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Celebration of Service

A volunteer in motion stays in motion

For IBM project manager Chris Zack, one volunteer project leads to another…and so on

Hundreds of IBM employees have marked their entry into volunteerism during annual eWeek activities (also known as Engineers Week). That is precisely when the ball started rolling for Connecticut-based Chris Zack, an engineer and IBM project manager. And Newton’s First Law states roughly that once the ball starts rolling, watch it go.

“I raised my hand at a meeting in 2004 where they were looking for eWeek coordinators,” says Chris. “Ever since then I’ve been volunteering at schools, talking about engineering and technology.”

In 2007, Chris’ participation in eWeek led to a project with the soon-to-open Connecticut Science Center. “It was a natural fit for IBM to have an association with the center, and to participate in the early stages,” Chris recalls. In 2010, he recruited other IBM volunteers and together they coordinated the center’s first participation in eWeek. “We led activities for kids using projects from TryScience,” Chris says, referring to a library of interactive science experiments provided by IBM and other partners via the Internet.

After eWeek, Chris and the IBM volunteers helped the center with its “Nano Days” activities, including getting presentation materials from two IBM Fellows. With these initial volunteer experiences under his belt, Chris says that, “I realized I really enjoyed talking to grade school students about careers in science and engineering, and the great opportunities they could have.”

My dear Watson

One of Chris’ contacts at the Science Center went on to teach at the Greater Hartford Academy of Math and Science (GHAMAS), a high school designed to expand the teaching and learning of science, mathematics and technology. When Chris learned that IBM wanted to pilot a new activity introducing students to its question-answering computing system called Watson, he thought GHAMAS would be a good place to try it out.

“It’s great to dream about being that next great sports superstar or pop star, but the odds are slim. I thought Watson and the Jeopardy! Challenge would be a wonderful way to stir the students’ imaginations and get them thinking about a career goal that is attainable,” says Chris.

He presented the Watson activity kit to about 50 students at the school, who Chris says “just loved it.” The kit, which combines online videos with classroom discussion and activities about the computer’s appearance on the quiz show Jeopardy! in early 2011, is one of many established volunteer resources available to IBM employees and the public as part of the company’s centennial year celebration of service.

“We got input from the students and two comments stand out in my mind,” says Chris. “One student wrote ‘I plan to work hard in school to do something like this,’ and another said ‘I plan to consider computer science as a career.’ Those really made me feel good, and confirmed that the presentation was getting the point across.”

On a roll

IBM’s volunteer activity kits are self-contained, pre-packaged experiences on a variety of topics ready to be delivered “out of the box.” Chris liked that the Watson kit let him focus on engaging students rather than spending time putting together the concept and materials. “Given how easy [the Watson activity] was to do, I decided to keep going and volunteered to present it at my son’s elementary school,” he says.

Chris says the 100 students, aged ten to eleven years old, thoroughly enjoyed it. “At that age they don’t know computer science could be a career for them, but I tell them that if they’re even a little bit curious about how something like Watson works, then science or engineering might be for them.”

Student and teacher response was so positive that they asked Chris to do more, and he identified another IBM activity kit called “Marble Ramp.” This time he engaged 8 and 9 year olds in an activity that involves designing, building, and testing a structure to roll marbles. The kit complemented the class’s lesson on Newton’s First Law of motion and gave them a hands-on activity where they could apply it.

For Chris, the momentum continues. The school has asked him to reprise the Watson and Marble Ramp activities, as well as another project for older students, next term. Back at GHAMAS and the science center, he is starting to create activities for students based on PowerUp, a free online eco-engineering simulator game.

“When the kids say they want to learn more about computers, or learn more about Watson, I get jazzed up. It makes you feel fantastic to introduce something new to them and experience their excitement,” Chris says. “I can’t wait to go back and do it again.”

IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.