“The more we can do to help kids understand that science isn't geeky, science is actually pretty cool, it's how the world works, the better off we'll be as a society."
Lou Von Thaer didn’t know any engineers growing up outside Topeka, Kansas, so he couldn’t quite see what exactly they did. But he knew he liked taking radios and record players apart and putting them back together.
“My grandfather made it to sixth grade. My dad made it through high school and worked his way up to be a maintenance manager at Goodyear, and worked really hard his whole life, and did great things,” Von Thaer says. “I wasn’t around a lot of people who went to college. And it was something that I knew I wanted to do, and I was lucky I was pretty good at school. I had an adviser at school who said, ‘You should go into engineering because you’re good at math.’
"I borrowed money and worked minimum wage jobs and put myself through college, and it just changed my life. I realize how lucky I’ve been.”
Two electrical engineering degrees later, Von Thaer is still good at math, though he’s now in the business of configuring companies instead of communications systems. He looks back at himself as that curious kid who loved tinkering with things and says he never would have believed he’d be the leader of a $5 billion research and development organization operating at the highest levels of U.S. security clearance.
Since his early engineering days, Von Thaer has made a point of getting children interested in science just like he was, serving as a mentor for STEM and robotics programs.
“My mission in life, at this point in my life, is to try to get every kid at least some exposure to STEM,” he says. As the United States’ position as the world’s economic powerhouse falters and students here fall behind other countries in mastery of the basics, Von Thaer says, “I think we need to get a bigger breadth of our population interested in science and STEM-type degrees.” That training can give graduates solid careers that can support families. “Every parent wants their kids to have a better life than they did,” he says.
To that end, under Von Thaer’s leadership Battelle made an $850,000 commitment over three years to help launch the COSI Science Festival, four days of events at Central Ohio businesses, community centers, libraries, schools and more that culminated in the Big Science Celebration May 4 on the Scioto Peninsula featuring more than 100 STEM exhibitors with hands-on activities.
Aimee Kennedy, Battelle’s senior vice president for education, STEM learning and philanthropy, serves on COSI’s board and when she suggested Battelle get involved with the Science Festival, it was a shoo-in, Von Thaer says. The festival supports another of Battelle’s goals: Demystifying its work for the community (well, the work that’s not classified).
“The first year I was here, I met so many great people in town, and so many of them told me, ‘Oh, Battelle’s a fabulous company,’ ” he says. “Then the next thing they’ll say is, ‘We have no idea what you do.’ This is a great way for us to get our brand out but also to partner and help COSI, help our scientists be out in the community and influence kids in fun ways, making slime or things that blow up.
“The more we can do to help kids understand that science isn’t geeky, science is actually pretty cool, it’s how the world works, the better off we’ll be as a society,” Von Thaer says.