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Ozone to school zone: Retired engineer puts 'E' in STEM at Villa Madonna Academy High School

New teacher brings life lessons to classroom
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Posted at 12:00 PM, Jul 30, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-30 12:00:08-04

VILLA HILLS, Ky. -- Retired engineer Mark Wolff holds two college degrees and just wrapped up a successful, 31-year engineering career that focused primarily on helping to preserve the ozone layer. Instead of hitting the golf course or traveling the world, Wolff is tackling a new challenge: shaping young minds.

At 55, Wolff will head back to the classroom next month for his second year of teaching. He got his feet wet teaching both chemistry and physics at Villa Madonna Academy High School last year and will get the opportunity this year to lead the school’s first engineering course.

For some, heading straight into a second career in K-12 education after retirement may sound crazy. For Wolff, it’s a longtime dream realized.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and it’s a new challenge,” the Edgewood resident said. “This year is really exciting for me, because I’ll be teaching an engineering course; and that’s always been my intention.”

The new course is part of Villa Madonna’s commitment – and recent investment – to expand its STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program. The school already offers AP courses in calculus, computer science, biology, chemistry and physics. Missing, however, was the engineering component, according to Villa Madonna Principal Pam McQueen.

“Our goal is to continually improve and enhance the opportunities offered to our students,” she said. In addition to the new course, the school raised funds to create a new maker’s space/engineering lab, she said. Villa Madonna also partnered with the University of Louisville’s J.B. Speed School of Engineering this summer to offer a STEM camp for high school students across the region.

Wolff is a perfect fit for the school’s revamped STEM program, McQueen said. His new course will be an introduction to engineering and offer juniors and seniors hands-on lessons in the various disciplines within the field. 

“He is a visionary, a collaborator and a creative thinker,” McQueen said of Wolff.

The University of Louisville alumus was a chemical engineer for DuPont for his entire career and held a variety of positions there, but much of his work focused on one goal.

When he started at the company back in the mid-1980s, scientists had just discovered an ozone hole over Antarctica, Wolff said. An international treaty phased out the production of many of the human-made compounds responsible for its destruction. Wolff was part of a team tasked with the development of ozone-safe chemicals.

It was important work: The ozone layer is Earth's “sunscreen,” according to the EPA, and protects us from too much ultraviolet radiation. And their contribution helped make a difference, Wolff said. Just last month, a year after his retirement, scientists published findings in the academic journal “Science” that indicate the ozone layer shows signs of healing.

“That was really cool for me, because it’s evidence that what we did helped make a difference,” Wolff said of the recent findings. “That’s what I love about teaching. It’s even more meaningful, because you can make a difference in the lives of your students every day – and you can see it happen right before your eyes.”

In just his first year of teaching, Wolff has helped move Villa’s STEM program forward, McQueen said. He helped create the school’s new maker’s space and developed a Maker’s Club, a group of students who use 21st century tools, such as design software and 3D printers, to make things. He co-moderates the club with his daughter, Annie, a local artist.

While Wolff admits his retirement looks very different from most, he said he is up for the challenge. He said he sees his long career in engineering as an excellent precursor to his second career in education.

“My time in the industry allows me to tell my students stories about things that were a success and mistakes,” he said. “It adds color and interest. … And I can better explain the importance of things like teamwork and collaboration.”

Wolff’s passion for engineering and science is also a big benefit for students, McQueen said.

“What we have learned in developing STEM – it is about the teacher who inspires and the vision that leads,” she said. “It is about students who think critically and emerge as problem solvers.”