An extraordinary volunteer

By the end of the school year, George Pittman hopes that the students at Stevens Forest Elementary School will be ready to begin their experiments examining the effects of cigarette smoke on plants.

But if more time is needed, that's OK, too.


Pittman said he believes that kids learn about science by figuring things out for themselves. It might take years to perform the experiment, but meanwhile, students are learning about oxygen and ambient light and control data. They are building chambers to hold the plants and figuring out how to make sure each plant receives the same amount of smoke.

"I don't care if we don't get any cigarette data right away," he said.


Pittman, 66, has the luxury of letting the students figure things out for themselves because he is not a teacher.

He is a volunteer, and certainly the most extraordinary one that the school's principal, Ron Morris, has encountered.

"I've been in Howard County 15 years and I've never seen a volunteer do what he does," Morris said. "I just think that commitment and dedication are awesome. I am blown away."

Pittman has been volunteering at Stevens Forest for 26 years, since his two children were students there. Starting in the early 1980s, he began carving out a half-day a week to spend in the classrooms. He began volunteering full-time in 2000, after retiring from his federal government job.

"I retired on a Thursday and taught eight hours worth of classes that Friday," he said.

These days, Pittman generally comes to school about 7 a.m. and stays until 5 p.m. He has worked out a complex schedule of classes with students in third, fourth and fifth grades so that the youngsters don't miss the same subject each week when they meet with him.

He also has carved out a laboratory of sorts in a section of the school library. Along one wall are neatly labeled plastic tubs filled with screwdrivers, hinges, drafting materials, pliers and many other gizmos and gadgets.

Shelves are crammed with science experiments from previous years, including electronic bells that children made, and sealed soda bottles that contain rusting nails.


More impressive are the file cabinets filled with science projects, presentations and lesson plans. Pittman has created a science dictionary, and has put together a book of about 200 lessons, complete with photos and an index.

In past years, he would help students sum up their work with presentations that would be given to the class. This year, he is absorbed with creating a Web site about the experiment.

Pittman, whose former job was in math, science and technology, does all this for free. He has no desire to become a teacher. "They have an incredible amount of stuff to do besides teaching," he said.

He doesn't grade students, either. "I don't know how to grade," he said. Instead, he introduces youngsters to scientific questions, then follows their lead as they figure out how to answer those questions.

The cigarette experiment, which was started last school year, was prompted by members of the county health and police departments, he said. The goal is to help children understand the health risks of smoking.

On Friday, fourth-graders Kameron Hayman, Julian Capino and Christina Devine, all 9, were working to figure out how to gauge the amount of smoke that would be in the chambers with the plants. The three students were riveted on the problem, even after the session was over and other students were moving through the hallways.


"We're going to see how the smoke affects the plants," Julian explained. That involved using a light meter, and Pittman was working with the students to figure out how it worked.

Pittman asked question after question, then patiently waited for the children to figure out the solutions. Usually, there was no one correct answer. He frequently responded that something sounded interesting, or that it required further investigation.

At one point, he asked the children how they would be able to tell if a plant had died. "What we need to know is, what do these things look like under a microscope," he said.

He also encouraged the students to approach the experiment without preconceived notions. "Most people are assuming that cigarette smoke will make the plant sick," he said. But only the experiment would say for sure.

Though Pittman is eager for results, the learning process is more important. "I believe that if you create the answer yourself, you will also create the pathway in your brain to come up with the answer again," he said. "My interest is in helping them learn the science process."