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SLAS Member Influences FIRST Experiences in Science

A sense of awe, a gasp or even five minutes of concentrated silence; these are the reactions SLAS member Jody Keck seeks as he works with elementary students to spark an early interest in science and technology. Even for the kids who don't grow up to be scientists, Keck hopes to plant a sense of curiosity and determination to find answers in the face of a challenge.


His first brush with teaching hands-on science came three years ago when his son was in first grade. Keck, a research and development engineer for Abbott in Des Plaines, IL, volunteered to lead science demonstrations for the entire grade level. At the same time that Keck and his son began exploring LEGO Mindstorms kits (the robotic kits typically used by beginning-level FIRST robotics teams), Keck had the opportunity to watch high school FIRST robotics teams demonstrate their creations at the SLAS2012 Conference and Exhibition in San Diego. This solidified his desire to coach a FIRST team of his own. For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) is a nationwide program that engages young people in mentor-based programs that tackle long-term technology projects such as building robots.

At this crossroads Keck discovered that SLAS, his favorite source for career development and trends in technology, quickly became an important resource for his robotics endeavor as well. During one of his frequent visits to the SLAS website to check out new webinars, journal manuscripts and other news, Keck learned about the SLAS FIRST Team Grant that is available to teams that are personally endorsed by a dues-paid SLAS member who is actively engaged as a coach or mentor for the group. Other SLAS members, such as David Pechter, MSME, have received the $500 grant and use it to offset expenses such as required project supplies, team registrations for competitions and team travel expenses to and from competitions. Receiving the grant was a great boost for Keck's rookie team.

"All the kids loved that rookie year. They had a good time," continues Keck, whose Puma Robotics team is eagerly anticipating the challenge for year number two. "FIRST has a saying, 'It's the hardest fun you'll ever have,' and that's the truth."

Keck's employer, Abbott, is a strong supporter of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education efforts, including FIRST. The company's foundation, the Abbott Fund, partners with FIRST on the Future Innovator Award, which recognizes high school inventors who create a unique and simple solution to a real-world problem. Additional information on the award, including judging criteria and helpful tips for participants, can be found on the FIRST website.

Keck also recommends watching a Leader to Leader Forum video, taped in St. Louis, that highlights speakers such as the president and CEO of Boeing Defense Space and Security, NASA's program executive for Solar System Exploration and a senior vice president of AT&T Services. These executives spoke about the benefits FIRST students offer to their future employers. "These were some pretty impressive players, and they all said that the FIRST kids are those they want to hire when they complete college. These are the kids who have solid experience in problem solving because of their FIRST experiences. They know how to overcome hurdles." SLAS Chief Executive Officer Greg Dummer agrees. He adds that it is a privilege for SLAS to have an early influence on young people through the grant program.

"The SLAS FIRST Team Grant is a great opportunity to seize the imagination of young science enthusiasts," Dummer continues. "We want to encourage and support kids' early experiences with science and technology, and help grow their knowledge of the profession years before they are making their college and career decisions. SLAS applauds team coaches such as Jody Keck and David Pechter for their enthusiasm in building a bridge between generations of scientists."

Keck says that it's the important concepts related to working on a FIRST project that help the kids excel. "For them to begin to understand this whole long process is great. It's the exact same process they will experience on the job when they get older, no matter what field they enter. They're going to be on projects that require collaboration with others. They're going to have to follow a timeline and make decisions and choices."

Choices Abound

Keck closely identifies with science-oriented kids because that's who he was as a youngster. Growing up, Keck and neighborhood friends constantly took things apart, reassembled them and generally improvised as the need arose, whether it was fixing bikes or building forts. "When things broke, we fixed them. Toys, bikes, whatever it was we didn't set it off to the side and we didn't wait for dad to get home. You fixed it yourself. I have always been fairly handy," he says.

In grade school he also was captivated by the "wow" factor of chemistry demonstrations he saw. This led to his studying the subject and being a chemistry teaching assistant his senior year of high school. With some guidance from his older brother, who was a chemistry major in college, Keck decided to pursue the subject for himself at Illinois State University, Normal, IL. Just being a student, however, was never enough.

"I recognized early that I would get farther in my field by having experience than I would by only having straight As," he explains. This understanding led Keck to pursue a variety of internships during his college years.

"I didn't go back to being a full-time student after my freshman year," he explains, adding that his first on-the-job training came through an internship with chemical company Nalco in Naperville, IL, during his sophomore year. "I alternated work and school from this point on. One semester of work, one of school. I pushed my graduation date off a year, but I graduated with solid work experience in three different labs: analytical, failure analysis and R&D." He followed this with a summer internship at Morton International making adhesives.

"Oddly enough, when I was accepting internships and talking to other kids about it, they were all concerned that I wasn't going to graduate on time. I never understood that. They paid me good money, and I was coming out with tons of experience and college credit in my major. It worked out great. What was an extra year if you had that experience?" he wonders now. "I was one of the only people I knew who had a job before they graduated."

After completing his degree in 1995, Keck worked as a chemist for Valspar Paints for five years. Then he decided to move to California to pursue biotech. "I had no knowledge of biotech, but I knew I wanted to get into it," he explains. It was the peak of the market for biotech IPOs, and he wondered how he could get a foot in the door. "It turns out it was a matter of emphasizing design transfer. When you can take things from the lab, scale them up and get them into production, that is a talent important in many industries. I used that as my leverage to secure a job with Sequenom Genomics (San Diego, CA)." He also found that his new position reconnected him with that childhood pleasure he had for improvising and engineering as he worked with the state-of-the-art automated laboratory equipment.

In 2002, he decided to return to Illinois and began a job with Abbott. A series of organizational changes led Keck through some quick career moves through various Abbott subsidiaries. "I am constantly asked about how I have managed my moves. Change is inevitable. I recommend that people keep a positive attitude and everything will work out fine," says Keck.

He is even more positive about his current work within the molecular division at Abbott, which involves developing next-generation automated molecular diagnostics. "The interesting bit about our work is the complexity of what we are trying to do," he explains. "I am only working on a small portion of it, and I admire my manager's job in coordinating all of it. The technology is fascinating and shaping it requires professionals from many different disciplines."

Keck shares that following SLAS has played a big role in expanding his career knowledge and professional growth and helps him understand science's many walks. "When you first start your career and you participate in conferences and webinars, you aren't always familiar with the topics, the companies involved and the products they produce. I am 14 years into my biotech career now and when I attend SLAS events, I see companies and people I know," Keck relates. "My interest has grown as my career has grown. For me, I find that SLAS is a great resource for helping me achieve personal growth which can translate into career growth. The society is always offering courses and events that help me fulfill these goals."

Fueling Creative Thinking

As for goals outside of work, Keck continues to focus on bringing science to the next generation, and it all begins at home. Playing with his 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter are primary activities for recharging his creative battery. Tours of science centers, internet searches for cool projects and recreating some of what they see at home are pastimes that he and his kids enjoy. "My son is already smarter than I am!" laughs Keck. "I can look at something, study it and work it out. He seems to just look at it and know what's going on."

These at-home pursuits in science are what inspired Keck to create the science presentations for his children's school. "It eats up quite a bit of time! You can't just get a kit from the store and present it at the school," he says, explaining that he receives a lot of advice about what to present. "What people don't always realize is that this has to be presented to 100 kids and it has to hold their interest. Not every experiment works in that format. There has to be a major 'wow' factor in most of this," he continues. In addition, Keck tries to follow the school's grade-level curriculum, can't use dangerous chemicals and, most importantly, "it has to fit in my car!"

Dry ice frequently fills this bill. "You put dry ice in front of kids and you have their attention," he says with a laugh. His favorite demo is a dry ice bubble achieved by filling a large, clear bowl with colored water. He tosses in a bit of dry ice and the fog spills over and creates a cool effect. Then he coats the rim of the dish with dish soap and draws a string that has soaked in soapy water across that rim. The rising dry ice fog fills a giant soap bubble. "Eventually it will burst, spilling fog out everywhere. The kids love it," he continues.  

Now that his daughter is in second grade, Keck continues the basic science demonstrations that he started with his son's class a few years ago. For the younger kids, it is something as simple as a fish tank with water and dropping in items that may or may not float. It is up to the pint-sized audience to hypothesize the outcome. "It sounds simple, but it has a big impact on them," he says.

For the fourth graders, Keck is toying with a demonstration of liquid nitrogen. He plans to freeze and shatter things such as flowers and bananas to delight his audience. In advance of all presentations, Keck runs test groups with his children's friends to make certain that each experiment makes the grade. He describes the process as energizing and says it helps renew his creativity for his 9-to-5 work in the lab. As a result of his work at the school, he finds that while he may not know all of the kids in his audience, they know him. He is frequently identified as "The Science Guy" when he is out and about.

The Payoff

As he completes another year of demos and leads his FIRST team to their second competition, Keck pauses to marvel over what he and the Puma Robotics team have learned. His team possesses diverse gifts. "Some are better at building, some better at programming. In the beginning, a few were good at all of it, and some were not into it at all," he shares. "One thing they did have in common was that none of them really understood the ultimate goal until they got to competition."

The team did extremely well their first year of competition, earning both the Robot Performance and Rookie Team Awards – great accomplishments considering the how hard rookie teams have to work their first year and how large a learning curve they need to surmount. Even more valuable is the spirit of improvisation that Team Puma gained during their competition journey.

"Just before competition started we had the opportunity to perform test runs on a practice table and they were not going well. Each table is slightly different, and to complicate things the robot performance varies with the power of the batteries. Our team opted to make a final program change. A highly risky move as there was only time to test it once," Keck explains, adding that during development, Team Puma required a program to pass eight out of ten tries before declaring it a success. "So going on the success of a single test run made us very nervous." In spite of this last minute change, the team's first two competition runs were very respectable for a rookie team, but their third run was flawless.

"As soon as the robot crossed into the 'safe zone' carrying its payload of points all the kids leapt into the air. They knew this was the very best they could do and it would move them into first place," Keck relates. "To keep things exciting, the tournament organizers adjusted the schedule for the final round to put Team Puma against the second place team. We were not as successful with this last run, but it didn't matter because the other team was not able to beat Puma's previous score and Team Puma were the winners." The last minute improvisation was an obvious success.

"For my kids and for anyone else, I always tell them they have to improvise. I won't let my kids say they can't do this or that, or that something doesn't work. I tell them to come at it from a different direction. My son, in particular, has really taken this to heart."

Keck mentions his own lessons learned. From keeping kids on task to connecting with them across a spectrum of learning styles and abilities, Keck finds his management skills expanding as he leads his young team through scientific discovery. "I see my management style reflected in how I interact with the kids," he laughs. "The parents are sort of like senior management, and the kids are my work team. I constantly need a timeline to communicate progress to everyone."

March 24, 2014