Don McKinney, Philly’s Elder Statesman of STEM
The subject of this posting will be long-time Ed Funder and distinguished community member, Don McKinney, who I affectionately refer to as “the Elder Statesman of STEM”. Don has an unsurpassed level of passion for education and sense of commitment to his community. It would be impossible to even estimate the number of Philly school children who have benefited directly (through his own teaching) or indirectly from Don’s work in his over 40 years in the education field. The same goes for the number of programs, schools, school districts, and STEM education initiatives that Don has contributed to. “Extensive” doesn’t even approach the amount of reach and credibility that Don has established during his career, and the clout that this lends to the Math and Science Coalition is inestimable. In the many meetings that I have attended with Don, whether at Drexel, U Penn, the District Offices at 440 Broad Street, or elsewhere it is nearly impossible to enter a building without seeing someone – very often a former student – greeting Don with a hug. He truly has “rock star” status in Philly area education . Oh, and in the photo below, he’s the handsome Irish gent with the hair!
Here’s Don’s story:
Like many of his generation, Don was the first in his family to attend college. He didn’t have childhood ambitions for chemistry, been when a chemistry scholarship at U Penn became available in his senior year of high school, Don applied. He interviewed on Memorial Day 1960 and was awarded the scholarship.
By his sophomore year at Penn Don realized that he had no desire to be a bench chemist, and at the same time became aware of a budding interest in teaching. Don took summer courses to earn his teaching certificate and by the time he graduated in 1964 had earned his B.S. and certificate.
Don recalls that in those days the college “career center” was nothing more than slips of paper on a bulletin board. One of those slips cited a 9th grade teaching position in Delaware County which Don was hired into and where he taught for the next 4 years. He subsequently taught high school science and remained teaching in that same district for 35 years.
The next phase of Don’s career got him involved in “horizontal advancement”. For example, the 1970’s ushered in the community schools movement, whose aim was to extend instruction beyond just the normal school buildings and into US Post Offices, Red Cross offices and the like. (In recent years, this approach has been revived, but in a reverse sense. A common example is the use of school gyms to host adult recreation leagues. Drexel is at the center of this movement, locally). During this period Don also became a Director of Student Activities, running graduations and other special programs, but realized after a year that administration was not his calling.
By the late 90’s, buyouts were being offered to high earners in the District due to an impending budget crisis. At age 58, Don elected to take a package. That may have been the end of regular, full-time work as an educator but it was hardly his exit from the field of education. In short order, Don was contacted by a former principal who connected him with another former colleague so that the pair could develop a math and science summer class for Philly area students. The Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) took note of this work and asked Don to develop on-line classes, which he did through 2007. This work resulted in two on-line courses, “Models of Significant Development in History” and “Pharma Achievers”. The later of these was in the vein of Nova’s “Heros of Science” program, and featured such notables as Gertrude Bell Elion, a pioneer of targeted chemotherapy, and Percy Levon Julian, a grandson of slaves who’s live spanned the George Washington Carver-to-MLK era, and who eventually resided in Oak Park, Il., one of the first integrated communities in the nation. Don developed a number of classroom activities based on the work of these greats, to supplement the on-line content.
In 2004, CHF asked Don to lead their Education Speakers Program, a series of conferences which focused on women and minorities in science education. The original conference was successful enough that 4 more were delivered as the program grew in prestige an demand with each successive conference. The Education Department at Widener University was sufficiently impressed that they asked Don to provide instruction to science majors who had a desire to go into teaching after graduation.
In the spring of 2005, CHF’s Education Speakers Program devoted one conference to science education for special needs students. The retired Rohm & Haas scientist who delivered this session introduced Don to Carol Fixman, then Director of the Philadelphia Education Fund. In December of 2005, Don attended the first meeting of the Philadelphia Math + Science Coalition, and one month later he accepted Fixman’s offer to join the Ed Fund in the role of Math + Science Coalition coordinator.
Among the first areas of focus for the Coalition was professional development for math and science teachers. Based in part on needs identified through a survey of District teachers, the Teachers Forum was established, with the first event being delivered in April of 2006. “It took about two and a half years to get the formula right”, Don remarks, but today the Forum is well-established, and highly regarded by teachers and District officials alike. The Forum is sponsored by Dow and delivers about 3 to 4 events per month during the academic year.
A second early area of interest for the Coalition was recruitment of teachers via alternative certification routes. It was widely felt that it took too long for career changes to earn their certification to teach, so the Coalition partnered with local universities to explore and pioneer new approaches. This work launched the Philadelphia Teachers in Residence program, developed in partnership with Penn and Drexel, which has placed some 25 scientist-career changers into classrooms.
A great deal more could be written about the Coalition’s programs and impact, so much of which owe their success to Don’s passion, expertise, extensive connections, and credibility with all players in the Philly education ecosystem, but I’ll start to close here by sharing a couple of personal anecdotes from Don’s 50+ years (and counting!) in education:
- Don’s favorite things about classroom teaching: seeing kids react with enthusiasm to a new activity he created.
- His most humorous classroom moment: seeing a fume hood fill with chlorine gas and spill out into the classroom, evacuating the students, and making the evening news (no one was injured)!
A centerpiece of Don’s educational philosophy is his belief in the value of blended education careers. Much as the pharma industry faces the challenge of keeping talented scientists in the lab, the education field provides plenty of incentives for teachers to leave the classroom and go into administration. Don would like to keep talented teachers in the classroom, but, at the same time, encourage them to take on roles that allow them to show an interest in their community and to lead. “Don’t make them choose”, sums up his philosophy.
Don’s advice to today’s teachers: “You can’t teach anything; you can only give the opportunity to learn”, and “get out of the way if you’re not needed”!
On a personal note, as I approach the mid-point (!) of my PULSE assignment I am aware of how comfortable I have become with the city, coming and going from the train station, enjoying the vibrancy, the architecture, the many (too many!) great places to eat. Several weeks ago, as I was waiting for my train home, I stopped at the Passero’s in Suburban Station for a coffee and spied a quite choice looking chocolate chip cookie. This was no ordinary cookie. This was a cookie freshly backed from 4th Street Bakery cookie dough. Suffice it to say that this has now become my daily vitamin – a 4th Street Bakery chocolate chip cookie to enjoy before boarding the train home. All Hail, 4th Street Bakery! I could also write extensively about Matt & Maries, Milk House and other downtown establishments that have made their own contributions to my waist line, but that would cause some among you to make an excursion to Shake Shack for lunch, or chuckle to your selves over my slavish enjoyment of food.
Gads, I miss the gym!
Finally, I continue to enjoy working right next to the cathedral downtown and taking advantage of the proximity to attend weekday mass once or twice per week. Perhaps a few of you saw a brief interview of me on my way into the cathedral one day last week, aired on Fox 29? Incredibly, they even pronounced my name correctly, “…….Catholics, like Steve Maio,………” as if I speak for all Catholics! I found this amusing enough to suggest to my family that we have t-shirts made, saying: “9 out of 10 Catholics use (insert product name), just like STEVE MAIO!”