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STEM Squared Summit Guest Innovator: Mark Gelfand

Posted by Sara Goodman on Mar 18, 2016


"I said: Let's do projects. Time is short! They all stopped and they're looking at me like, 'what?' when I say, 'let's do stuff.' It's universal. Kids everywhere like the hands-on stuff. I'm sorry. It's a lot more fun for them than just reading a book. I want them to read books, but you need some incentive to read a book." -Mark Gelfand

Mark Gelfand, a STEM-minded financial systems pioneer, spoke at the STEM² Summit on advancing hands-on STEM initiatives internationally in Ethiopia, Israel and other countries.

In this transcript of his talk from the summit, you'll learn:

  • What's so exciting about the STEM world
  • How, in the words of Gelfand's son, "inside every child, there is a scientist"
  • Secret airlifting, Ethiopian immigrants, and math class


Scott Morrison: Morning, everyone. We have Mark Gelfand. Mark is a financial systems pioneer. His career includes computers, wearing the hat of programmer, engineer, businessman, investor, philanthropist. In 1985, he founded Intex Solutions, which has patented the standard calculator for the international structured-finance markets. During the past 10 years, his physics and electronics background are the foundation of many philanthropic STEM enrichment projects.

His physics background also guides the portfolio of technical startups established by his private investment company, Plan B Ventures. He co-founded Ethiopian-based exporting farm Green Mark Herb, PLC. He's now the founding impact investor of Today Tomorrow Ventures, a new company, a hybrid that combines philanthropic and business sensibilities capitalizing on opportunities within selected areas in East Africa. Mr. Gelfand earned his BS in physics from Carnegie- Mellon University in 1973, has three sons who are also engineers, and he still tinkers with electronics and chemical engineering near his home in Massachusetts, so certainly someone with a strong STEM background, so let's welcome Mark with a round of applause, please.

Mark Gelfland: Thank you. Thanks to all who made this conference possible.


I'd like to talk about hands-on STEM. What I mean by that is not really so much out of a book, or that the student is encouraged to then go to the book because they have a context for everything. Just on the screen, hands-on is probably the most important in STEM, and the least important is the Gelfand Family Charitable Trust, which doesn't exist. It's simply a donor-advised fund account at Fidelity, but it makes me pretend to be a large organization, and everybody thinks I'm one of the biggest things on the planet. I'm just a little schnook. That little schnook is going to play out a lot here.

Question is: What gets kids, — students — interested at this next generation? What gets them interested in STEM? What is it? Is it their genetic makeup? Is it their prenatal soup that they're swimming in? Is it a television show, a visit to a science museum? Seems to be sometimes a teacher and a primary, secondary, tertiary school. Excuse my language. I sort of swapped over to the metrics system. I'm spending more and more time in Africa. I stopped with our elementary school or middle schools. We have different naming nomenclature.

What are the things that grab a kid's interest? Because when a kid's interested, you've got a motor going there, and you don't do any more coaxing. They're the ones that want to do it, so okay.


This is where I started. On the left is my father's father's father's father and his wife. And this is me at 16 in my basement workshop in South Euclid, which is a trolley-car suburb, an inner suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.

You can see hands-on. That's how I learned. Formulas, I understood them — didn't have any relevance. When I actually built and made things, then I really understood it. That's just how my brain works, and I think a lot of kids are like that. I think they're a lot less book smart and a lot smarter working with their hands. I think that we need to capitalize on that. That's my mission.

When I ask fellow engineers of my age bracket what got them interested in science and engineering, a lot of us will say the American manned space program. We were glued to the TV set; it was this methodical approach to getting to the moon. We were always excited about what we were currently working on and getting to the moon seemed... They beat it. They had a target and they beat it, and with less money than we can ever imagine.

What else happened?

In 1950s and '60s, we had these fuzzy black-and-white TV sets alluded to by our last speaker. The show I really liked was called “Watch Mr. Wizard.” What I liked about it was the boy did the kitchen experiments and the girl did the dangerous experiments. It was very unusual for its time, and I was glued to every one of those shows. You can get them on DVD; they're awesome. I'm actually trying to produce that now in Ethiopia in various languages there because of the push of science there.

What else? Crystal radios. There were various ways of making crystal radios, and you could make your own radio receiver with parts around the house and some wires and things like this. We also had Lincoln Logs.

What other things did we have? We had the chemistry set. What happened to chemistry sets? Now they're these watered-down somethings. Whatever happened to dangerous experiments? That's how you learn.

Of course, one or more teachers — science teachers, sometimes math teachers; I even had an English teacher. It was the only English teacher I kind of connected to ever in my growing up, because that English teacher was an electrician in the summer, and would love to tell us how they wired the power mains and all these things.

What other ways?

I still think I give credit to the Three Stooges. Why? Because they made things work. They got themselves in a situation, they did their best to get out of it, or usually got in worse trouble by the end.

Looking through the eyes of this... I'm 16 in this picture. The only way I know that is because they used to put the dates on the edges of the pictures. This picture, by the way, went to the Soviet Union and then, when the family there emigrated to Israel, I picked up a copy of it, and that's how it got here.

Speaking of Soviet Union, something happened when I was six-and-a-half years old. That was Sputnik. It wasn't just Sputnik, Sputnik One, which by the way circled the Earth every 90 minutes or something like this, and to the delight everybody who had a hand radio was scared all of the neighbors from the atomic bomb going to drop on our head.

It was an amazing shock to the country. The Chinese now are sending up space manned crews, but we don't even care. We don't even read about them, but that was the shock, and not only was it the Sputnik One, it's Sputnik Two. A dog named Laika — my dog's named Laika; looks just like him. Sputnik Two, they put a live animal up on a spacecraft that circled the Earth. It was a centric orbit, went up about 2,000 miles, and unfortunately the insulation burned off and the dog died, which is very sad. The dog would never come back to Earth alive because there was no re-entrance system, but it proved that mammals could live in space.

Then Luna Three was after that. Quick succession; Luna Three went around the back of the moon and came back to Earth. It had the most primitive darkroom you could ever imagine on board. It took 18 fuzzy pictures. Actually, it took more, but only 18 of them made it back to the Earth. Really fuzzy pictures, but for the first time, Mankind could see the far side of the moon, which was — as we all know, it's locked in a tidal orbit with the Earth, so we never got a chance to see most of the backside of the moon.

This was a big shock, okay. There's the space race.

Okay, so I'm living in Cleveland; I'm a little kid. I'm looking at the math books that my ... I had a neighbor that was one year older; I saw what I was going to get the next year in math, and it was, “A doll costs .97 cents and roller skates cost .13 cents and you have $2.00; how much change do you get back?”

I looked at it and I said, "I'm going to die if this is my math."

In Cleveland, because of Sputnik Two, we had a radical change — rapid change in math. Some call it the new math. I forgot to get my props here. Basically, the math teachers got together with private foundations; not a penny of government money went into this. Let me get this book. It was always fuzzy in my mind, and luckily, I found materials to do the real research in it. We in Cleveland have probably the most advanced response in doing something, doing something against the Soviets, and it was called the GCMP Math Program; it brought in the Venn diagrams and all that stuff, and it was actually quite successful in Cleveland, because big industry was behind it and pushing it. We had classes and visitors and things like this. This is a case where new math was actually... For me, it was totally relevant.


I'm this kid in that picture. That was the last year I was in advanced class. I was kicked out for lounging, so the person who helped me with these slides cut off the left part of the picture so the teacher doesn't show. It wasn't me; I didn't do it, but she kicked me out for lounging, so I guess she's not in the picture, but it didn't matter; I didn't care because I always thought education was — the school was more for social, learning how to live without the kids.

Basic things in school, and we'd bring up certain new ideas, but as you can see from this previous picture, I already had a basement lab, and in my basement lab, I built all kinds of things. Here I'm 16, but I started at about fourth grade with a simple neon-bulb resistor oscillator, and I actually ended building my own oscilloscope from scratch and things like that. For me it was irrelevant, because I already had hands-on context — a STEM context of things. I was building my own monographs before calculators. We didn't have calculators then, so anyone know how a slide roll works? You're really adding log rhythms and anti-logs and getting back the answer and things like this. It's sort of a trick with drawings. You're not actually calculating, but it gives you rough answers.

In electronics, there's all kinds of needs for those things for rough calculations, so I made my own monographs, which are with a ruler, between two endpoints — you could put and guess and answer for parallel resistors is a classic one. How do you do the calculation? You can do that sort of graphically. For me, I had a good context for math, but I was kind of a loner in that regard, and not too many of my friends had that capability or interest. I still had lots of friends and goofed around a lot, but for me, I was sort of driven and bit by the STEM bug early on, because it was just so exciting, whether it was the new computers that were coming out or all kinds of things.


For my bar mitzvah, this was my present from my uncle. I'm looking at the circuits and vacuum tubes, this feedback was a very clever [but dangerous] approach to how to build a very powerful radio by introducing what's called positive feedback. Unfortunately, your ears were squealing all the time if you didn't have it exactly tuned right. Then I also look at this circuit and I'm thinking, "Oh, my God. There's no isolating transformer. I could have killed myself." All the things were like them.

Thank goodness there is a company right down on 128 here that saved my life, and it was Raytheon Service Company. They took any transistor that fell out of the missile program, and they called it a CK722: It was put in a plastic poly bag and sold it to people like myself who could barely afford anything. That CK722 saved my life because voltages were, instead of 300 or 1,000 volts, like the ones I put through my nose, actually I'm looking down, they transited much lower voltage and you didn't really know what you were getting with these things. They were plastic, they were metal, they were PNP, NPN, logical, valinear. The point is they were now becoming available, and for me, I was just hitting this STEM world. It was so exciting. I kept on going.

There's a... It's probably hard to see this; I just sawed this off. I'm building a house and just sawed this off yesterday to bring it here. This is rebar. It reinforces concrete. My uncle — I grew up my uncle Leonard — was an electrical engineer, but he really was a chemical engineer, and so has many patents. There's a rebar piece on the bottom, rebar piece on the top, and he was able to chemically weld them. It's called thermite reaction and the prevalent dangerous thermal runaway exothermic reaction. Awesome. Do not try this at home, and I mean it, or unless you have a big beach behind your house, in which case no one's around within 50 meters, including yourself, because you'll ultraviolet hurt your eyes.

He invented many kinds of chemical welding processes. The thermite’s in there when it gets hot. What happens is: Aluminum is a metal that really badly wants the oxygen, that is in rust, and once you get the thing going, it gets very, very hot, and then the iron is heavier, then the aluminum falls down and mechanically welds. I always thought it was a physical weld. I think they were overselling it as more of a mechanical weld.


It's so strong. You can see the picture here; that's inside nuclear power plant. Almost all nuclear power plants are held together with my uncle's invention. You can see the slides, and so is Cape Canaveral, and so is Radio City New York, and all the large projects are held together... You can only ship rebar 50 feet long. You can't ship 500 feet, so it's big, and also you want to butt weld them and all kinds of things, so he had all kinds of inventions for not only iron, but also a copper aluminum, and I grew up with this.

This was my upbringing; it's how I grew up. My uncle's very proud that these splices would be much stronger than the rebar. Rebar would always snap. They'd have these giant machines. He was always showing me pictures of these giant machines ripping these things apart, and always the rebar ripped before the weld.

Iron oxide is also another part of my life. This is like a nightmare — make it go away. Iron oxide, this is furnace number one and two at a last furnace that I worked at in Pittsburgh when I went to school at Carnegie Mellon. They take iron ore — which is iron oxide really mixed with a few things, including limestone which had kind of the use of the same idea what the aluminum did. It outcomes liquid metal, only tons and tons and tons of it.

I was sort of somewhere between middle class and working class and something like this, because this is the town of Braddock, right around the steel mills not far from Pittsburgh, just a few miles from where I — I took a bicycle there from Carnegie Mellon.

On and on and on in college I found, I would say, a few more things a little safer than what I had been doing, and in physics, I was involved with physics experiments and [a] production facility, things like this, started to get a little more computer-oriented and sort of particle-based rather than huge masses of things. My background in college was in physics, although I can tell you a little joke.

My grandmother wanted me to be a doctor. Jewish grandson, right? I said, “No, my father's drugstore; I don't want to be a doctor. I want to go into electronics, like an electrical engineer like my uncle.” And I went to Carnegie Mellon. I was there for two weeks. I knew all this stuff; I had a big workshop basement. I was really — it wasn't that interesting to me, so I went into physics. I went back and told my grandmother, "I'm going into physics," and she was so happy, because she thought physics and physician were the same thing. I didn't bother to dispel that. It wasn't worth it.

In college, I learned more about math, more about time-series analysis, where you have variables that relate to each other over time, and there's all kinds of analytics for that. Somehow that ended up that I just found myself in a position to be involved with the biggest time series on the planet, which is the world financial system, and in particular something much larger than stock markets: It's called the bond market. Everything is somehow financed and paid back over time and things like that. Wall Street got a hold of this and came up with a crazy idea — let's take, you can look up here, a bunch of…  those are supposed to be houses. Let's take a bunch of houses, pull them together, and then sell them off to investors.

My Russian colleague uses the example of a chicken. He's Russian. You have a chicken and you can sell it for 10 rubles, but if you sold off the legs and the breasts and the wings and these things, you might be able to get 11 rubles out of it. That's what these crazy people in Wall Street called structured finance, and it actually works quite good.

If we go back to this picture here, it relates to the earphones here. These are US Navy surplus — WWII. You have to match the speaker's impedance: the output of the circuit with the input. I believe that in its purest sense, this matches the impedance of what investors are wanting to buy and what's available, and it sort of takes things apart to make risks. Some investors like risks because they only have to pay a few pennies on the dollar. Others want something stable, like a life insurance company, but they also want payback over a certain amount of time. Anyway, it's all engineered. It's a crazy use of the word “engineering.”

I didn't invent it. I'm not involved in it, but the inventing part, we don't touch any money — nothing to do with that. We're simply the technology of that industry. It was so complicated, Wall Street didn't understand it themselves, and they needed us to even solve their own problems. We caught billions of dollars of payment errors as a result because of poor systems that were in place.

We're [...] at every bank in the world that deals with the nature of debt. With assets you have liabilities, and our software kind of understands every structured financial deal that's out there including many different languages. Thankfully, most are in English, but not all, like the Japanese ones. We've kind of built the universal platform for all deals. Whatever kind of financial instrument that's out there that is involving somehow the assets and liabilities that our system can handle.

It's a crazy market, and it went kind of really crazy-haywire for many reasons which I could tell people offline, or in my opinion offline. We were simply the truth. Our role was simply the truth. We were the gold standard for calculations and numbers and data, and still are, actually.

All right. That's my former life. The STEM world, I can speak it so fluently because of good math background and practical-math background, from doing lots of different things including dangerous experiments and building and making go-carts and so on.

I have three sons. Thankfully, all three of them are into this world. One's a metal stamper in Whitman, Mass.; one's a mechanical engineer who also likes scientific programming, and third one is probably the best engineer of all three; he is in the world of bioinformatics, but he actually is now helping his brother. They just started a business in Waltham on Moody Street. All the kids are jumping up and down when they see that machine doing things.

That's it for me. I've done okay in my life's ups and downs, but on a whole, balanced positive. What can else I do? I started teaching after-school programs and before-school programs at my local school system in Newton, until the principal told me, "You can't teach here anymore because we have someone teaching diversity, and therefore, there's no time for your STEM class." I've had this year after year after year in Newton. Thankfully, I moved to the North Shore and got out of there. I am now — I've actually retired, although that doesn't mean anything when you wake at 4:00 in the morning and go to sleep at 2:00 in the morning every day.

Why that's happened is that I have moved on to trying to do STEM enrichment, hands-on STEM enrichment. I found that I could help kids understand STEM if I taught it, but if I teach it myself. So I have basic electronic courses I taught to kids, second graders to fourth graders. They learn how to do circuits, schematics, build things, they loved it. They cried when the last class was over.

Then I thought I could do even more, so I started doing larger things. I've helped out public schools. I've found an angle to volunteer there. I was the only science volunteer out of 2,000.

I could do even more. I started doing some projects in Israel. I have lots of friends there and relatives and things like this. It's a conducive place for exploring science and engineering. Because of Israel, I ended up coming across the Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, who some of them are not doing well, and some are doing fantastically well. At a youth village, the Ethiopian immigrants are 250 out of 525; they are poor, orphan, abused kids, this youth village, and they ended up after seven years winning the first robotics contest in Israel. Beating all the kids who, both their parents are engineers.

I quickly said, "I'm going down there too. I got to see what's going on in Ethiopia."

This is an example. It's the edge of a road on the way to a flower farm that a friend has in Ethiopia, 50 kilometers south of the capital. This is actually the nicer classroom. For some reason, I'm putting the worse-off classrooms that are held together with ropes and twigs.

That's some classes. I walk into this and, "Can I do something?" Answer was, turned out I could, and significant. It's beyond my wildest dreams and beyond that.

That's the same location of the previous picture. These are built in Ethiopia; these stools and the cabinetry is built in a local factory there.

Can we do something? What I'm going to do is STEM and I don't care about all this other singing and dancing. When children start singing, I tell them to stop. I don't want to hear it. Let's do projects. Time is short. They all stopped and they're looking at me like what? I say, "Because let's do stuff." It's universal. Kids everywhere like the hands-on stuff. I'm sorry. It's a lot more fun for them than reading a book. I want them to read books, but you need some incentive to read a book.


Some of these pictures are scattered around. This is in western Nairobi. I've done a couple of projects in Kenya now. This is a STEM wing we added to a school. It's probably the best school now in the country. Where's this? This is in Ethiopia; this is Newton. This is a kid in one of my classes. This is what we did after school program. I could have the parents sue me for lead solder — I could have them sue me for getting burnt. I told them, "That's okay. I'll sue them back." I don't stand for that stuff. Anyway, this is an example of the electronics class. That kid was probably a third grader. I don't know why this picture came up for math. I have better ones, but that's the STEM world.

It can be done. The kids are very capable of it.

This is inside. This is an elementary school. This is a primary school in Ethiopia. This is the old way I used to do computer centers. We have a much more African-appropriate computer center now, but you can see the area, places I work. I have been lucky enough to be with the Swampscott school system; we have the whole STEM program. Completely changed the language of the school, including English and history departments. Still a battle, but we're doing great.

I have projects at Carnegie Mellon and Case Western; I have other projects around Massachusetts — big supporter of the Mass state science fair, which I really encourage your school system to do because it's creative. That's creative. It's not the creative arts is not creative, creative with your brain and coming up with an idea and actually data driven getting an answer. That's creative. Okay. Forget these principles; everything's online.

We take an idea; this is drawn for me right at the first step.

Ever heard of Operation Moses? It's where the secret airlifting of Ethiopians. This is a school; the very first step of that path, that road. It was children who go to the main school. It was literally wooden sticks latched together, and kids sat on the ground with troughs dug for their feet. We take an idea, we design using reasonable modern techniques, good enough to get the town's building inspector to okay the drawing.

These blocks are made from local materials as a recipe we use. It's about five mega-pascals strong. Stronger than hollow block concrete. [...] It's the color of the Earth. This actually, the one on the right is a block thing. This is an example of a high school. I built maybe 10 or 12 high schools now — campuses, not just a like a little room — and this is one in a village of a friend of mine. This was so successful that we have to build more blocks. We now have like 500 kids who are attending the school, and there's no rooms for the computers and labs, so we're building more blocks.

What you don't realize is that kids don't get bused around there. They have to walk 10, 15 kilometers every day back and forth to school, so by building a school, now they can study in their own hometown.

This has become a college prep school. You don't see it finished here, but there's block after block after block, and this is just springing up all over the country. It's an amazing story that we in the United States never hear.

On the right here was a celebration... I'm on TV four or five times every time I go to Ethiopia for different projects I complete. It's a lot of fun. This is an example of my first science and engineering center, which now six are completed, two more are in process, and four more are about to happen. This is half of the electronics lab. It's one of four labs. This is one of my smallest engineering centers. These are seventh graders.

As you see, I have projects all over the place. I like East Africa. I have projects all over Israel. I have other projects, but these are the STEM oriented ones. There's just too many to list. Lots of things. A couple are the first robotics things. This is a youth village, 525 orphaned, abused, just poorly treated kids and that tree out there. Probably nobody knows: There was a big fire in Israel a couple of years ago. That tree in the back the fire got, is now a piece of charcoal. That's how close the fire got to this lab, and it survived. It was really lucky.

More projects all around Israel. This kid here [...] kind of escaped into Israel. Turned out he's genius. I wish I had a picture of — I have a picture, it didn't make it here, of his math.

We have classes taught in Arabic there; we have classes for illegal immigrants who, they're there, what do you do? It's very controversial, but I don't care, because these kids are smart; they're the future. This is interesting because we have a science museum, which is spectacular. It's one of the world's best, but it also has a big educational wing that I kind of wished for, and we're making a science museum here — not for that science museum, but these displays are on the boat right now to get to this facility in building it [...] in Ethiopia. This will be the first science museum between north and south Africa.

Ethiopia, I could go on forever. That's my farm, that's one of the first projects; this is typical of science clubs. Every city has high schools and every high school has science clubs. That's figured into the 10 best of each science club has now attended, we start with nationwide at 23 of the universities, out of the 31 have summer science STEM enrichment programs. Last summer, 20,000 kids speaking 65 different languages attended. We have to deal with all kinds of strange things, but this is typical of a science building: lab, lab, lab, lab all over, plus an auditorium.

We just crank them out now. They are green — unlike what we call green, these are really green in terms of the amount of energy it took to make them, and real quickly, there's Kenya worked on some different projects there.

This is a picture just a few days old. I just sent a box of books to a new school that has a lab in it. I'm not building schools unless it has labs.

South Sudan, that's a challenge; five projects there. One or two of every one of my profitable investments or whatnot are really just to support the STEM enrichment. That's how I can afford it. This is the building in South Sudan that we're building, and there's two of them, actually. It's right next door to an army base, and it was like a nightmare when that last war occurred, so it's a little bit of a challenge, but we're back to work again, and this will be STEM labs.

One of my first projects was a youth village [...] modeled after the one in Israel, and this is what we do. My biggest thrill was when they wrote back, and they built an FM transmitter radio for their campus. They were marching around trying to find the best spot for the antennae, measuring it.

That's it, really. I just want to point out the last thing is a little motto one of my sons came up with: Inside every child is a scientist. I have it on every building in all kinds of languages, and that's what I do. I'm in the bill of it, and I'll get back to it as soon as I get home.

Morrison: Thank you very much, Mark. I will say this as we close out this session: I think the pictures that you showed and demonstrated, I think oftentimes when we think the word “engineer,” you think of a bridge, or you think of something else and you demonstrated to us that an idea can be engineered, a process can be engineered, and a system can be engineered, and so I think that the takeaway from that in terms of the work that you do back in the classrooms is very important as well. So Mark, thank you again.

All images courtesy of the speaker and the Gelfand Family Charitable Trust.

KnowAtom is a founding partner in STEM².







Topics: STEM, STEM Squared Summit

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