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February 15, 2017

Vincent O'Leary on the Schuylkill River as part of the "Project Footpath" course.

Vincent O'Leary on the Schuylkill River as part of the "Project Footpath" course.

If not for the mentor who helped fuel his interest in science, Vincent O’Leary wouldn’t be at Drexel today. He knows that young students tend to drift away from science without someone to fan their flame, so the junior environmental science major is stepping in for service, ready to pass on his passion.

Every Wednesday, beginning in the late fall of 2016, O’Leary, '18, can be found in the classroom at Locke Elementary School in West Philadelphia with a group of first graders, running through simple experiments and showing them the majesty of science and, if all goes well, inspiring some to end up with his same energy and enthusiasm for the scientific world.

O’Leary goes to Locke as part of “Connections to Physics,” a community-based learning course offered through the Lindy Center for Civic Engagement. He serves as a teaching assistant to Christina Love, PhD, an assistant teaching professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Physics. In the first few weeks of the after-school program, Locke students played with magnetic slime and learned about thermodynamics in the form of mood pencils and popsicles frozen by liquid nitrogen. Already, he said, he can sense the kids’ interest growing.

“They’re really engaged,” said O’Leary. “Just on the first day, a lot of them were already coming up and saying, ‘This is the most fun day we’ve ever had.’”

O’Leary said the class could develop into a more established program with additional funding and support to bring it to more schools. In addition to physics, there is a biology version of the course. Math is set to join the list later this year, with all three offered in a rotation.

For O’Leary, it’s important to create opportunities for students to benefit from the same experiences he has had. Growing up in West Virginia, he had an interest in science but was often discouraged from putting in the work to attend science fairs and other extracurricular activities. When he met Zachary Loughman, PhD, a biology professor at West Liberty University, he found someone willing to work with him and nurture his interest.

“It really took someone stepping into my life and, without me even knowing to ask for it, saying, ‘I want to mentor you. I want you to do the science fair if you put in the work for it,’” said O’Leary.

With Loughman’s help and encouragement, O’Leary dove in. He eventually heard about Drexel, secured a scholarship and ended up in Philadelphia, eager to play the same role for others. In high school he did it through programming summer camps and birthday parties at the Oglebay Good Zoo in Wheeling, West Virginia. Not long after he arrived at Drexel, he was at it again.

In his sophomore year, O’Leary helped Ted Daeschler, PhD, associate curator of vertebrate zoology at the Academy of Natural Sciences and a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, design a course called “Project Footpath.” Initially sparked by the Academy’s interest in creating a walking path to connect it to Drexel’s University City campus, the class linked urban ecology, environmental science and civic engagement by contemplating ways to turn the Schuylkill River Trail into an educational resource.

Daeschler, who taught O’Leary in a freshman University 101 class, saw his interest in making the public understand and care about science and brought the idea to him.

“He showed incredible enthusiasm and wouldn’t let me forget it after I talked to him about it,” said Daeschler.

O’Leary came up with the name for the course and then took the class he had helped get off the ground — a move not many other college sophomores can say they’ve made. But that wasn’t the end of his work on the project. He has partnered with the University of Pennsylvania, Bartram’s Garden and Peter DeCarlo, PhD, an assistant professor with dual appointments in Drexel’s College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences, to continue finding ways to connect Philadelphians to the history, ecology and environmental realities of the Schuylkill River Trail. An app is in the works that would facilitate education about the area as people walk through it. There is no shortage of information to include about this dominant feature in a city with an extensive history of change.

“’Schuylkill,’ I’ve been told, means ‘hidden river,’” said O’Leary, offering an example dating back centuries to the river’s naming. “There was forest here and you’d miss the river if you didn’t know where to look.”

The same can be said of science — without someone pointing a young student in the right direction, they might never know where to look to find their passion. In the classroom and the community, O’Leary is helping to show the way.