We Only Get Them When We’re Good!

Article by Tony Ginsberg CEng FIChemE

In the fifth in a series about chemical engineers who volunteer their skills to contribute to society, Tony Ginsberg shares the joy and shared benefits of volunteering to support science and maths classes at a local primary school

IN 2006, I was 64. During my working life I had spent 30 years in industry as a chemical engineer. Retirement loomed and I really didn’t want to stop working. My story will demonstrate the old adage: “when one door closes another one opens”.

How and why did I get involved?

Fortunately, understanding my plight, my wife picked up a leaflet for me at the library. It was issued by the local council and outlined a project where the young helped the old, and vice versa. They needed volunteers, so I applied, was interviewed and offered a task requiring a weekly visit to large local primary school. “There’s a boy there who is obsessed with science”, I was told. Would I talk to him? It didn’t take long to discover that he was fascinated by explosives, not science, so I set about trying to adjust his interests.

On the way out, after my second visit, passing by a year 5 class, a glance through its door’s glass window revealed a young teacher clearly in distress. Stepping from side to side and red in the face, they looked really flustered. They were showing the class a picture of pylons with suspended high voltage cables and insulators, crossing a large field. Could I help?

I went in. I hadn’t yet met this teacher but before I could say anything, they asked if I could talk about the picture. I nodded and in a trice, they had sat down with the children leaving me explaining, in the simplest terms I could muster, how the National Grid worked! I finished by answering all the children’s questions and received a standing ovation. The news must have gone round the school that a recent visitor knew some science. Within a few days, I was asked if I could attend the school three days a week, and some weeks later be there full time, which I now am.

During one of my earlier sessions for year 6 (the 10/11-year-olds), I needed some glass marbles to help give a demonstration. I went to the reception classes where I knew I would find some. The teacher was happy for me to take a few. I went across and picked up the jar of marbles. Four of the little ones came over and stood close by me: “We only get them when we’re good!” was the assertion. “But I’ve been good!” I replied. They looked me over, considered the situation, then allowed me to go ahead and borrow the half dozen marbles I needed. We counted them out together. “When will you bring them back?” “Tomorrow morning?” They were happy with the timescale and sure enough, the following morning, there they were, waiting for me by the marble jar. We counted the six marbles back into the jar together and they went happily on to the next task of their day.

I realised I would be able to give them a different reward later in their school lives – knowledge

I admired the little ones’ courage, assertiveness and togetherness as they confronted this seemingly impudent old stranger coming into their lives, wanting some of their treasured marbles. I realised I would be able to give them a different reward later in their school lives – knowledge.

Back to school: When one door closes, another one opens

How have my chemical engineering skills helped?

The rounds of applause I had received set me wondering if I’d missed my vocation; though perhaps not, as I’d enjoyed every day of my chemical engineering career.

Helping out at a school and being an engineer are such different roles, but I have reviewed the skills I had acquired as an engineer and have compared them with those a good pupil needs (see Table 1).

I have long-since thought that it is during primary-school years that children first learn to reason, make use of their curiosity and develop life-long interests, but that they can be put off subjects such as science and maths because they seem hard. With this insight, I have concluded that pupils certainly need a good measure of all my skills which I will do my best to impart.

Table 1: Where engineering skills meet pupil skills

Article by Tony Ginsberg CEng FIChemE

Retired chemical engineer and volunteer at Cedars Manor School

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