Posted March 22, 2010

For the love of kids and science

As he stands at the microphone, looking across at more than 700 Philadelphia middle and high school students, their teachers and parents sitting the bleachers of McGonigle Hall, he looks like a school principal waiting to bring the school assembly to order.

But for Thomas Anderson, director of the George Washington Carver Science Fair, this is a moment he waits for all year long. It’s the 31st annual Carver Science Fair; the day when some of brightest students from Philadelphia’s public, parochial, private and charter middle and high schools will display their science projects for the judges.

As he welcomes them and calls out instructions, a ritual he has been going through since he founded the fair 31 years ago, it’s tough to tell who is more nervous and energized, Anderson or the kids.

“To look out and see so many young minds, to see all those kids so excited, it’s really a very special feeling,” said Anderson.

Special would also be a good way to describe Anderson and the work he’s done for Temple for the more than three decades.

He was director of community relations at Temple in the mid-1970s when he was invited to join an organization of corporate community relations representatives.

“I’ve always been an outgoing person and always felt I could not do anything just sitting around at Temple,” he said. “Frank Hess was the community relations person for Gulf Oil, which had a program on George Washington Carver, and he was trying to come up with some type of commemorative day.”

Hess got Anderson and Albert Morris, the late publisher of the Philadelphia Tribune, involved.

The three initially organized a commemorative program, followed by a George Washington Carver portrait competition, with the winning portrait being presented to Philadelphia’s George Washington Carver Elementary School.

“During the ceremony, they announce that ‘Next year, Tom Anderson is going to be the chairperson of the commemorative event.’ I mean just out of the blue,” recalled Anderson with a laugh. “They knew I had done some teaching, and I had run little science fairs in my school, so I thought, 'Why not put together a science fair in honor of Carver?'”

After initial reluctance, Anderson got the School District of Philadelphia onboard and the first George Washington Carver Science Fair was held at the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1979 with a mere 50 projects from the entire school district. But it was a start.

Because Philadelphia had no feeder program to the larger Delaware Valley Science Fair, Anderson was approached about making Carver part of the regional program. That meant expanding the fair and splitting it in two, with grades 4-6 comprising one part and grades 7-12 — which would be part of DVSF — comprising the other.

“I never burn bridges, I build bridges,” said Anderson. “So I left grades 4-6 at the Academy and I brought grades 7-12 to Temple and McGonigle and Pearson Halls in 1985.”

Since those modest early years, Anderson estimates that more than 33,000 Philadelphia school students have participated in the Carver Science Fair. Some have stood out a bit more than others.

“There was a young man from Central High School working on flatworms as his project,” remembered Anderson. “You know if you cut off the end of a flatworm it will regenerate. Well he was grinding them up and they were still regenerating.

“But he had gone into it in such a way — it was a longitudinal study over two years — that Wistar Institute got wind of it and he was offered an internship, then a scholarship to Penn,” Anderson said. “What he was doing they were working on too, but they didn’t have it figured out like he did.”

Anderson is also proud of how his Carver winners stack up against students from suburban school districts at the Delaware Valley Science Fair.

“Being that we go to the Delaware Valley Science Fair, and the counties represented at that fair have better science programs, we are very competitive,” he said. “We send maybe 120 kids to that fair and at least 60 place annually, and over the past nine years, we’ve had at least 2-3 kids go on to the International Science Fair and place there as well.”

Anderson has also worked with Temple’s admissions to create the Temple University/George Washington Carver Science Fair Academic Tuition Scholarship Program. Temple offers two scholarships each year to Carver Science Fair students who place either first or second among the 11th grade participants in the fair and there are currently six such scholars enrolled at the university.

Anderson “officially” retired from Temple as associate vice president for community relations in 2005 after 31 years at the university, but he is still a fixture on campus, running the science fair out of his office on the second floor of 1700 Broad Street. At a time when most would be slowing down and enjoying retirement, he is working as tirelessly as ever for the Carver Science Fair and his kids.

“It’s the love of my life, it became a part of me,” said Anderson. “Someone has to do it for the kids. As long as I have the good health to do I would like to continue to do as long as I can.”