Awardee Profile - Monte Evans (Shodor)

Monte Evans (Shodor)

2007 - Monte Evans knows firsthand the power of a good mentor--but it’s doubtful he expected to find his mentor in a hair salon.

Today, Mr. Evans is a computational scientist at the Shodor Education Foundation, a Durham, N.C.-based nonprofit organization that seeks to advance science and mathematics education through the use of computational science, modeling and technology.

But 13 or so years ago, he was a seventh grader who just happened to be doing his homework at the local hair salon owned by his mother. Cramped for space, he sat between hairdryers to work on assignments. “The dryers were quite noisy and warm,” he recalls.

At the time, computer scientist Robert Panoff, Ph.D., was laying the groundwork for the Shodor Education Foundation--in an office adjacent to the salon.

It wasn’t long before the ambitious foundation-builder introduced himself to Monte’s mother and offered her cramped student-son a space to work in exchange for taking in the mail.

Young Monte jumped at the opportunity and quickly became a regular visitor.

It was the early days of the Internet, and Dr. Panoff’s group was keeping pace with developing technology--and Monte was keeping pace with the staff members.

“I sort of asked them questions about what they were doing,” Mr. Evans said. “They showed me how to use a Web browser, check e-mail, and learn how to use the search engines of their day.

“I started actually having an avenue to apply my passion for organizing and constructing useful information and making it easier for people to use.”

Shodor grew apace, as did Monte’s relationship with Dr. Panoff and the other people at the foundation. Over the years, researchers from across the country would spend time at Shodor, conducting studies and developing teaching materials outside the constraints of academia.

In 1997, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund provided the foundation with a grant to run a series of summer workshops and Saturday classes for middle school students.  Monte Evans enrolled in every class--and soon was helping teach them. He learned digital photography, Web design, programming, and the process of scientific inquiry.

After several years, Dr. Panoff realized that the foundation’s primary product was proving to be “not the workshops but the returning students who wanted to be interns and to help teach the workshops to others.” Monte continued to play a role at Shodor throughout high school, which he spent at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, and college, which he spent at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Shodor now is a $1.5 million-a-year operation with 15 full-time staffers, 35 interns, and 62 apprentices (students who are learning to become interns), as well as a new headquarters building.  The foundation’s Web site (Shodor.org) accommodates some 3 million users a month.

And Shodor continues to grow, expanding its support for young people eager to learn mathematics and science.

Dr. Panoff says that BWF’s support remains vital to provide Dr. Panoff calls “adventure capital”--seed grants that enable Shodor to launch new and sometimes experimental programs.

“Those grants let us try local pilot programs to see if something we think can get kids excited about mathematics and science actually will work,” he said. “Without that money, we wouldn’t be able to take chances with kids and take chances with new ideas.”

For his part, Mr. Evans teaches workshops, oversees the apprenticeship programs that drew him to the foundation in the first place, and, importantly, serves as a role model for the younger students.  He also directs database development for the Computational Science Education Reference Desk, an application for the National Science Foundation’s developing digital library, and he teaches seminars to outside groups on how to combine interactive computer programming with activities for young scientists.

In teaching students, Mr. Evans takes special pride in making them “feel at home” with complex ideas and technology. In one recent class, for example, he explained what an algorithm is--without using the technical jargon that scares off some students.

“You basically show them it’s a simple procedure to show how things are done,” Mr. Evans said. For homework, he asked the students to write an algorithm--or show the steps--for tying their shoes. The results ranged from simple reports to a seven-page “dissertation” on shoe tying.

“We take the scariness out of learning and show it’s actually easy to do,” he said.

Mr. Evans says he is encouraged by the students who come to Shodor.  On a recent February day when many local schools were closed because of snow, several students still were lining up to do their work at Shodor.

“It’s exciting what we’re doing, and I feel that it’s making an impact on people’s lives,” Mr. Evans said.  “Without good direction, I may not have chosen the path that I did.  I feel as if by working at Shodor, I can show that to future generations.”

Ed. Note:  Monte Evans was recently accepted into graduate school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

By Jim Walsh, a recent journalism graduate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He is now a copy editor at the Chicago Tribune's Red Eye.