To reinvent science education, he's enlisting all ages

As a mathematician, Robert Panoff knows probability. So when doctors told him in 1994 that he had six months to live, he knew his odds were long.

But he also knew that assumptions need to be tested.

So he had surgery, more surgery, rest and more surgery.

And he started a foundation, Shodor, with the aim of improving math and science education.

"I was no Jim Valvano," he says. "My goal was not to cure cancer but to do what I could for science education."

Now Shodor, which started in a small office space in Durham, resides in a high-rise across from the Carolina Theater with views that extend to Raleigh and Chapel Hill. The foundation is a nationally recognized success story.

This year, Shodor got a plum assignment: to be part of something called the Blue Waters project, which plans to build the fastest computer system yet, at the University of Illinois.

It will allow researchers to predict tornadoes and hurricanes more precisely. Drug researchers will be able to analyse 1,000 molecules at the same time. Shodor's job is to make sure the first college students who get to use it in 2011 know what to ask it to do.

The foundation's broader mission is to build excitement for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics among budding scientists, from middle-schoolers to graduate students. This work affects the teaching of math across the state.

"He's evangelical about mathematics, says Joe Freddoso, head of MCNC, which operates an Internet and data network for the state's educational institutions. He's known Panoff for five years.

"His hobby is math," Freddoso says. "Math and lacrosse are the two things he loves most."

Panoff, son of a nuclear engineer and chemist , does not look evangelical. Let's make that clear. He is not loud. Not showy. Wearing slacks and a sweater, he looks exactly like the former college professor that he is.

But when he talks about the possibilities of mathematics and science and of computing, and of students who get such things, the passion rings true.

He punctuates his points with a forceful tap of his forefinger on the table.

The idea that to get better math and science students you need to teach their teachers took hold with him in the early '90s when he was a professor of physics at the University of Illinois.

Every year, the freshmen were less and less prepared for college science, he says. So he looked at the way they were being taught and saw that teachers weren't teaching technology the same way he was asking students to use it.

But that's not the kind of project that brings a university big grants. So after he was diagnosed with kidney cancer in November 1994, he had surgery to remove the tumor and then decided to quit fighting the university and do the project on his own.

He moved to Durham because it was the most economical place to set up shop. With his grim prognosis, he found a place he could rent month-to-month.

And he got busy building a nonprofit.

"You've got to have a reason to get up in the morning," he explains. "This was a very good reason to not die."

His goal was to offer teachers -- from middle school to college level -- a way to look at technology that was different from what they were getting in professional development workshops.

"They were learning Powerpoint," he says, with obvious disdain. "We were adopting a project that we code-named 'Beyond Power Pointlessness.' "

His first project, in the spring of 1995, was to develop a curriculum for schools run by the Department of Defense on overseas military bases. The grant allowed him to hire his first employee.

Panoff also wanted to reach students. So there are workshops, internships, summer camps and apprentice programs for middle school students up. Shodor now has about 17 people working in the office regularly, he says. But older students -- interns and apprentices -- also offer mentoring to the younger students. All the students help develop the learning activities on Shodor's Web site, where teachers can get lesson plans and students can learn how to divide fractions or understand a Hilbert curve.

"They give students an assignment and then cut them loose to be creative," says Ellen Reckhow, a Durham County commissioner whose son apprenticed and interned at Shodor. "While there's mentoring and support, there's also a lot of freedom to take their ideas and run with them."

Monte Evans was Panoff's first apprentice, in 1994. His mother owned a hair salon next door to Shodor's first office. Panoff made a deal with Monte, then 12: Collect my mail, and I'll give you a quiet place to study.

Before long, Panoff was showing the kid that a computer was more than a toy. He was also teaching Monte to think.

"He presents students with a question," says Evans, who graduates in May from UNC with a master's in information science. "There's not a right answer. It's about how to explore and observe what's around you and come up with good questions to ask."

That is part of Panoff's brilliance, Freddoso says.

"He can take statistical concepts and give kids examples that are practical in their world that show the application. He can turn anything into a math problem. He could probably turn a hip-hop rhythm into a math problem."

And he teaches them to question their assumptions.

Take eggs, for instance.

When Panoff brings them into class, some have an H written on them, some an R. Observe the eggs, tell me about them, he says.

Students spin an egg to see if it wobbles, stuff like that. Observation: One is raw, the other hardboiled.

Then, Evans says, Panoff cracks the eggs. One is empty. The other filled with dish washing liquid.

Don't trust your initial observations, Panoff tells the students. Don't make assumptions.

Freddoso and Reckhow see what Shodor does as critical.

"We talk about innovation careers in math, science and engineering," Freddoso says. "The work that Bob does and that Shodor does directly relates."

But for all its national credentials, Shodor is not well known in this region. Much of its operating money has come from National Science Foundation grants.

For the past 10 years, the money, about $1 million, has been enough to pay for interns, to train faculty members around the country, to produce workshops and camps, to hire the Durham staff to teach and supervise area students who come in after school, on weekends and in the summer.

Panoff does much of the traveling whenever his health allows. Though he defied his doctors' original prognosis, he says you never get the all-clear from kidney cancer. He has had surgery to "remove something" six times now. The latest was in February.

This year, Shodor got a $1.3 million grant spread over three years, or $450,000 a year. The reduction is a casualty of the de-emphasizing of science during the Bush years.

So while Panoff and his staff are developing the Blue Waters curriculum, they have another challenge: raising money to keep the internships, apprentices, summer camps and workshops going locally. He will not leave local students out of Blue Waters.

There is no danger of closing those doors, Panoff makes clear.

There are companies in the Triangle -- pharmaceutical, telecom, chemical, software and hardware -- that will recognize the value of what Shodor does, Panoff knows.

Times are tough, he knows. But the thing to do is ask, he says.

And he's got a pitch: "Yes, they're cutting back now, but it's going to come back. And when it does they're going to need better engineers, better computer technicians, better programmers."

He can deliver them. The odds are on his side.