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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...
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

“There was no collegial feel. You just got in and got out. This wasn’t a learning community, to me.”

That approach to education went against his own school experience, as well as his entrepreneurial bent.

“It seems obvious to me — if you’re serious about educating, it’s definitely not a 9-to-5 job,” Donaldson says. “And it just kind of left me wondering, what kind of student does this produce? Are we doing these kids a disservice?”

Donaldson left that job and turned his attention to launching a high-tech startup business, working multiple jobs and “living in a basement” to try to keep it going. For the next few years, during the latter stages of the technology boom, he started or worked for several startup ventures.

Eventually, though, he became burned out. He began to realize that if he was going to be in business, he wanted to be doing something he could be passionate about.

By this time he had met his wife, Tiffany Cunningham Donaldson, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. He decided to turn his attention back to education. He took a job as a “tech guy” at the Codman Academy Charter Public High School, and then began teaching a supplementary class at a middle school in Roslindale to prepare students for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test in math.

The MCAS teaching was an unpleasant shock.

“You expect kids to act like you,” Donaldson explains. “I was the type of kid who hated school vacation. I loved school. So seeing kids trying to get out of class, throwing their textbooks out the window and just [being] disruptive — I didn’t know what to do about that.”

He got through the year, but felt dismayed by the lack of support given to new teachers in the public schools and the painful lack of basic math skills in the students.

“In the eighth grade, we definitely had kids who didn’t have the basic skills needed to really start making sense of math,” Donaldson says. “And because of that, you had to ‘teach to the test’ to try and get them close” to being able to pass the MCAS.

He could see that working to fill kids’ heads with facts for test preparation was not going to make them excited about the subject.

Another teaching job, in a summer program called MathPOWER, run by Northeastern University, was a much more positive experience. Though it was the same subject, math preparation, and basically the same basic population of kids, he had great support and training.

“I was able to raise their math scores by 25 percent over the summer,” he says. “There were no discipline problems, and they enjoyed it. I thought, ‘I can do this. This is great.’”

From there, Donaldson moved on to Smith Leadership Academy Charter School in Dorchester, where he taught MCAS math and engineering. During his time there, he earned a Master of Arts in Teaching from Simmons College, and worked as a research fellow at TERC, a Cambridge-based educational research and curriculum development organization.