Local CEO trying new way to teach kids chem

Sandra Larson | 4/29/2009, 5:39 a.m.
Keith Donaldson, CEO and principal investigator of the Cambridge-based technology company MolySym (left), talks with senior software engineer Marius Vilkas. After a decade of alternating between teaching jobs, graduate studies and high-tech entrepreneurial ventures, Donaldson, 33, is now trying to change the way chemistry is taught to students, inspiring them to pursue math and science. Sandra Larson

Keith Donaldson wants to inspire high school kids to pursue math and science.

He has tried to do it from within education, only to be disillusioned by the system and what he says is a lack of opportunity for teaching and learning by inquiry and discovery.

Now he’s coming at it from the outside.

After a decade of alternating between teaching jobs, graduate studies and high-tech entrepreneurial ventures, Donaldson, 33, is the CEO and principal investigator at MolySym, a Cambridge technology company aiming to change the way chemistry is taught.

Donaldson manages the development of MolySym’s new learning tool, called a Hyper Molecular Modeling System, or “Hypermodel” for short, which is designed to help students “see” and “feel” what molecules experience in reactions. It is the kind of visual, hands-on, interactive tool that Donaldson says he believes could have helped him in high school science, and can help other students today.

For Donaldson, coordinating the Hypermodel technology development, as well as an upcoming summer enrichment program for high school students, pulls together all of the wisdom he has gained about education from his own experiences as a learner, a graduate student in education, and a teacher.

“I’m a visual learner,” says Donaldson, who got his first computer in the sixth grade and taught himself to write computer programs. “I like things to be hands-on and tactile.”

Donaldson attended Newton Public Schools and then the private Roxbury Latin School. There, he acquired a classical education but didn’t quite find his niche in Latin, French and classics. And he struggled with science classes.

Though he appreciates the education he received, he says he now sees that the way science and math were taught didn’t mesh with his learning style.

“Looking back, I think if there had been opportunities to really get my hands on chemistry and explore it in a way that was meaningful to me, it would have been accessible,” he says.

From Roxbury Latin, Donaldson headed to Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he crafted a double major in two subjects he loved — fine arts and computer science.

“In my mind there was definitely some way to combine [art and computer science], but at the time nobody knew how to do that,” he recalls.

An opportunity to do some undergraduate research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab opened his eyes to the possibility of combining them for educational purposes.

“… At the Media Lab, people were looking at how they could use technology to improve education, and do it in creative ways,” he says, “so that brought it all together for me.”

Donaldson dipped his toes into the world of education shortly after graduating from Morehouse and returning to Massachusetts in 1998. He took a job managing tutors at Dorchester High School, now the Dorchester Education Complex. It was his first experience with public schools in Boston, and he remembers being surprised.

“One of the first things I noticed was when the bell rang at the end of the day. Everyone left,” he says. “At 3:00, it was a ghost town — students, teachers, everybody was gone.