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Local CEO trying new way to teach kids chem

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Local CEO trying new way to teach kids chem
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. (Photo: 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.

“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.

But by that time, Donaldson was fairly certain he was not going to make a career of school teaching.

“I’m better at looking from the outside in,” he says. “I think standards are good, and I think we should have them, but at the same time, particularly in the sciences, it kind of works against what a teacher should be trying to do — and that is to inspire your students, give them opportunities to explore the world around them.”

While still teaching, he had started doing some work for MolySym, writing grant proposals to fund their technology. He helped secure $2 million from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Education. Since they were turning their attention to developing tools for education, it was a natural move for Donaldson to join the company.

Now he is focused on the possibilities for the Hypermodel technology.

The Hypermodel itself looks like a traditional ball-and-stick model used in many chemistry classes, where the balls represent atoms and the sticks show the bonds between the atoms. But this model has a computer inside it.

As a student manipulates the model in his or her hands, the processor detects the changes in orientation and angles and sends data to a computer display, so the student can see an instant visual representation of what is happening to the molecule. The data can be used for computations in real time, or saved for later study.

The company is now working on building curriculum around the technology, Donaldson says. He envisions out-of-school programs that allow kids to have access not only to MolySym’s tools and curriculum, but also to supportive mentors that can provide them with opportunities to foster and explore their interest in chemistry.

Just as important, he wants to make chemistry relevant to today’s world, to open students’ eyes to how many facets of life depend on chemistry.

“We’re working on a biofuels curriculum,” says Donaldson, “so they come away from it with a solid chemistry background, but also have experience in what’s going on with biotech, particularly biofuels.”

In August, the Hypermodel will be a key teaching tool at a two-week intensive chemistry enrichment program for Boston-area high school students who are due to take chemistry in the upcoming school year. The Molecular Literacy Institute, scheduled to run from Aug. 3 through Aug. 14, will give students a chance to use the new model while learning the fundamentals of chemistry.

If all goes well, Donaldson will be fulfilling a desire to join technology and education.

“I want to inspire more kids to look at chemistry, to see how it relates to the world they live in. And beyond chemistry, just get them involved in science,” he says. “If you can light a fire, point a kid in some direction, he’ll take it and run with it.”