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Celebration of Service

IBM scientist creates extreme science makeover for minority students

Science comes alive for high school students thanks to Tom Zimmerman and the Extreme Science Program

As a long–time volunteer in California’s public schools, and California’s 2009 Volunteer of the Year, Tom Zimmerman, a scientist at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, most recently worked with the National Hispanic University (NHU) to create a hands–on science enrichment program.

Zimmerman developed the unique concept of combining extreme activities with science to show students how exciting science can be. Sixty high school students from the Latino College Preparatory Academy participate in a two–year program that includes a summer camp. The charter high school was created jointly by NHU and East Side Union High School District as an alternative for students who are not succeeding in a larger, traditional high school because of a language difference.

The program is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, in partnership with IBM and NHU, with additional support from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Ames Research Center, Maker Faire, an event that celebrates engineering, science projects and the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mindset, and the home improvement retailer Home Depot.

The program helps students become designers, scientists and engineers by offering a series of projects that expose students to a variety of topics including biology, chemistry, physics, earth science, computer science, engineering and more. The students develop critical thinking skills, and learn to break a complex project into simpler, more manageable projects. Since participation is voluntary, the program must be fun and exciting to capture their interest, as well as challenging and rewarding to keep them engaged.

Tom set up an underwater workshop at a local diving shop to give students the experience of working in a weightless environment. He took them on a field trip to skydive in a vertical wind tunnel. He even created a summer automotive workshop. Under his leadership, the program has grown to 16 teachers, attracting scientists and engineers from NASA Ames, Lockheed Martin, San Jose State University and the US Geological Survey.

Zimmerman expanded his volunteer work to the college level, forming a relationship with the San Jose State University Department of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering, supporting students working on solar energy projects and providing mentors for his high school students. Now he is working with local community groups to develop inexpensive technology to test water quality, combining his research for IBM with his passion for serving the community.

"I love working with students because I get to be a student again, being creative with basic materials, experiencing and sharing the joy of discovery and invention," stated Zimmerman. His extensive volunteer work received public recognition in 2009 when he was honored as the California Volunteer of the Year by Governor Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver.

IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.