Nonprofit uses technology for teaching

Paul Brown

DURHAM, N.C. — As a physics professor, Bob Panoff saw too many students arriving in his undergraduate and graduate-level courses lacking critical knowledge.

So in the late ‘80s, he began teaching workshops to give educators the skills and tools they need to prepare students for higher education and their post-academic lives.

Those workshops met with opposition from university administrators who were concerned the program wasn’t a profitable use of the professor’s time and expertise.

In 1994, after being diagnosed with kidney cancer and given six months to live, Panoff decided if it wasn’t profitable enough for the university, he’d leave academia and start a nonprofit to provide training and resources for teachers.

Fourteen years later, Panoff is still around as president of Shodor, the Durham-based organization he created in 1994.

Still working to help educators effectively use technology to teach their students, Shodor today is interested in the possibilities offered by computing technology for teaching math and science.

Panoff wants teachers to move “beyond powerpointlessness,” and utilize technology for more than electronic blackboards or Internet access.

“We take really good educational materials, and we extend them into classrooms,” says Panoff.

To encourage students to excel in math and science, Shodor uses an extensive intern and apprenticeship program to create its educational content.

The 25 interns, most of whom are college students, mentor the 50 high-school-level apprentices, teaching them the skills they need to become interns themselves.

Together, they create the lessons and interactive programs that Shodor provides free online to teachers and students.

The educational materials the interns develop are entire lesson plans based around innovative uses of math and science.

One lesson, for example, uses a controllable simulation of a forest fire to teach about chaos theory and probability, while another uses Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” to illustrate pendulum physics.

The utilities and lessons distributed by Shodor have been well-received by math and science educators, Panoff says.

The group’s online resources receive three million to four million hits per month, he says, and appear on numerous lists of online teaching resources.

To prove the quality of its ideas, Shodor has branched out into direct student education.

Interns from the organization teach for afterschool and summer programs at local community and faith-based organizations such as the Emily K. Center and Antioch Builds Community.

The main challenge facing Shodor is acquiring funding for its projects.

Until recently, Shodor’s primary means of support was a National Science Foundation grant that provided 85% of the nonprofit’s $1.3 million annual budget.

But the grant was provided to fund research in teaching methods, not actual implementation.

Because the organization now is putting its research into practice, Shodor will go without the grant this year, Panoff says.

The organization needs money to cover not only such necessities as hardware and salaries for its staff of 20, but also servers to host its online educational materials and handle the huge amount of traffic it receives daily.

Shodor recently began the Computing MATTERS program, to extend its services to students more directly and organize its programs more cohesively. Making Shodor’s work more visible to the general public is a hoped-for side effect of this program.

“We need more friends,” says Panoff.

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