JPL Tutors Make a Difference at Local School

JPL's Mary Ellen Robertson, right, tutors a student JPL's Mary Ellen Robertson helps a student with English homework.
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March 28, 2005

Jim Chase is one of the most popular guys at a local middle school in Pasadena, Calif. He's tall, extremely intelligent and flashes a shy smile. Chase isn't a student, but rather one of the JPL tutors who head to school on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to help kids with math, science and reading. Chase is quiet, soft-spoken and a whiz at math problems who learned all he knows from his father -- who just happens to be a college math teacher.

"I enjoy working with the kids," Chase said. "At JPL I'm challenged every day working on various projects, so when I tutor it's nice being the one who knows the answers and can challenge the students." Chase, who works as a spacecraft systems engineer, became intrigued with space after watching a Space Shuttle mission when he was just six years old. But he also loves education. He's working with a calculus class at John Muir High School in Pasadena and plans to teach there later this year.

For the past three years, Mary Ellen Robertson has helped students with their English homework. She can be found in a quiet corner helping students with reading skills. Robertson, who studied English and journalism in college, saw her mom volunteering in schools for 12 years. "It just seemed like the natural thing to do," Robertson said. "The kids help me just as much as I help them. They teach me patience and how to really listen to their questions. They keep me on my toes."

JPL has been partnering with Charles Eliot Middle School since the 1980s. About 16 JPL tutors rotate between Eliot and Muir High School each week. Eliot's principal, Jerry Cradduck, says he's seen significant progress in students' reading and math skills. "The students are getting help in areas where they have the most difficulty, and the tutors are helping them prepare for the next day."

Each week, about 60 students file into the school's library after classes for the tutoring program. There are 150 sixth, seventh and eighth graders signed up, but they only attend the session when they need extra assistance. Seventh grader Laura Viera searched for a tutor to help with a science project. The JPL tutor gave her some good ideas that worked, and she received an A. "You would think they would be really uptight because they're engineers, but they're really cool," she said.

Students who normally have trouble completing their homework are now finishing their assignments and having the tutors check their work for accuracy. Cliff Helfrich, a navigation engineer who ensures JPL's spacecraft stay on the right flight path, does the same for Eliot students. "If they're having difficulty with a problem, we start over and get going in the right direction," Helfrich said.

He has tutored for two years and says it's rewarding to help students complete a project they think is impossible. "They can always do it with a little encouragement and some helpful hints. A lot of my work at JPL benefits the science world, and sometimes in order for me to see that payoff, I have to read it in a journal. Here, all I have to see is a kid smile," Helfrich said.

Principal Cradduck says his students also learn about community involvement. "The kids are seeing people who care about them, apart from their teachers or counselors. It's important for them to learn about giving back to their community."

For more information about JPL's tutoring program, contact Eva Graham at eva.m.graham@jpl.nasa.gov or Rita Torres at rita.a.torres@jpl.nasa.gov

Natalie Godwin
(818) 354-0850



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