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home : education : schools June 26, 2016


2/11/2014 12:50:00 PM
Cal Allen gives back through science
Cal Allen is responsible for staging the February 22 Science Fair. photo by Jim Cornelius
+ click to enlarge
Cal Allen is responsible for staging the February 22 Science Fair. photo by Jim Cornelius

By Jim Cornelius
News Editor

Most times when a couple of friends get together to solve the world's problems over a cup of coffee, the conversation just drifts off into the ether and nothing actually happens.

But when Cal Allen and Bob Collins met for coffee some three years ago, it led to something that has profoundly impacted many lives in Sisters Country - including their own.

The problem they were trying to solve was the lamentable state of science education in the United States, which has fallen well behind much of the world in that category. They wanted to do something in their own home-town that would push against the downward trend.

Cal recalls: "We talked about the success that the Sisters Folk Festival has had promoting music and arts in the schools, and we asked ourselves why it couldn't be done with science."

Thus the seed for the Sisters Science Club was planted; and it has since flourished, with a thriving speakers program for the community, multiple programs supporting science education in Sisters schools and a successful Science Fair, which will have its third running on February 22.

For Allen, the Sisters Science Club provides a vehicle for him to contribute to the school in a community he and his wife, Marsha, adopted in 1995. After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in chemical engineering, Allen went to work for Chevron.

"I actually spent most of my career in business, not the engineering side of it," he said.

He worked in Chevron refineries and eventually became the general manager of their fertilizer production in the Bay Area.

"I left when they offered me a job in Houston," he recalled with a wry smile. "We thought there were better places to live, so we moved here."

The Sisters Science Club offers the retired engineer and manager an "opportunity to put background and skills to work on something I thought could be very beneficial to the community."

Cal's "job" with the Sisters Science Club is to manage the staging of the Sisters Science Fair, which he has done each of the past three years. His eyes light up when he describes the exhibits, which will include a 3D-printed solar car designed by students.

Allen's friend and colleague Bob Collins, president of the club, knows that pure joy in creation is the secret heart of Cal's enthusiasm.

"He just loves to tinker," Collins said during an interview with The Nugget.

Allen doesn't deny it. He leaned forward in his chair and described a vacuum gun he's built - along with the means to measure its ballistics. In the days before electronics, the muzzle velocity of a projectile fired from a gun was measured by use of a pendulum. The velocity is gauged by measuring how high the pendulum swings when impacted by the projectile.

That's the system Allen has built, and it will be in action at the fair.

"We're hoping for 500-mph exit speed, muzzle velocity for the cannon," he said. "We're going to see if this homemade pendulum works."

Serious fun; serious purpose.

One of the key missions of the Sisters Science Club is to support science education - and an enthusiasm for learning science - in Sisters schools.

It's caught on. A math club is thriving, robotics teams are competing across the region, and Collins and Allen are excited about a new engineering curriculum being developed by teachers at Sisters High School. This will be hands-on, with the focus on making things - like that solar car.

Building curriculum is where the rubber meets the road, Collins believes.

"That's where the future lies," he said "That's where the energy and the whacko ideas of what to do are coming from."

For Allen, it's important that science education be for everyone, not just a select group of interested students. He believes every student should have a fundamental background in science "so they understand the world they live in."

There are many challenges, as educators work to incorporate new Common Core standards into curriculum. While the partnership between the club and the school district is strong, the founders recognize that the pace has to be set by the teachers in the trenches.

"We can't get ahead of the school district," Allen said. "We can't run faster than they can accept new ideas and change."

The science club has come a long way since that first cup of coffee three years ago.

"I think Cal and I have come to the end of our startup phase," Collins reflected.

Now the founders are working on sustaining what the club has launched.

"The vision is that we'd like to see it as a process that moves forward even when we're not involved," Allen said.

But, of course, Cal is still involved - as evidenced by his vacuum cannon science project. Collins smiled as he described his friend's delight in his tinkering.

"He's had a lot of fun with this and it'll have scientific value at the high school," he said. "He's hooked."

For more information on the activities of the Sisters Science Club, visit www.sistersscienceclub.org.





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