Chemistry professor got his start with a $3.50 set

Q&A

January 25, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

When Nazi SS men broke into his parents' apartment in Nuremberg, Germany, and ransacked the place during the anti-Jewish Kristalnacht terror in 1938, 8-year-old Ernst Silberschmidt was left with a vivid understanding of injustice.

Ernst and most of his family escaped to England and later to Tacoma, Wash. Nearly three decades later, when he was offered a job teaching chemistry at historically black Morgan State University, he jumped at the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young people whose parents and grandparents had known injustice in this country.

Today, Dr. Ernest Silversmith, 63, is a veteran of 26 years at Morgan and one of the best-liked and most highly respected professors in the school's undergraduate chemistry program. The winner of several local and regional teaching awards, he was recently named "Maryland Chemist of the Year" by the Maryland section of the American Chemical Society.

Dr. Silversmith also is frequently asked to conduct science demonstrations for city schoolchildren and workshops for their teachers. He finds great potential and enthusiasm for science, he says, but they need inspiration, encouragement and tools.

Q: What turned you on to chemistry?

A: A chemistry set made by the Chemcraft Co. of Hagerstown, Md. I saw an advertisement in "My Weekly Reader." It was $3.50, and I saved my allowance.

Once I started doing those experiments and seeing those wonderful color changes and magical things happening, that was it. I never stopped loving chemistry. By the time I got to high school, I had taught myself so much, I probably didn't learn anything in high school chemistry.

Q: Good teachers can fire students up. How do they do it?

A: To be a really outstanding teacher, you have to be able to put yourself into the students' shoes and realize what kinds of things students wonder about, and what sort of mental struggles the student is going through to try to grasp this rather sophisticated information.

Q: How does someone in his 60s connect with students in their teens and 20s?

A: I try to keep in touch with students. When a student comes in to me for help, I don't just work the problem for them. I force the student to have some input. I try to know what is it that's making this problem difficult.

In that way I can also find out what things are interesting and try to show them this is stuff that is really important now in the world.

Q: You had a successful career in industrial research. Why did you leave it to teach at Morgan?

A: I realized I really did enjoy working with young people, and I wanted to get back to it. I was so enthused about what Morgan was about. I certainly felt, ever since I was old enough to realize it, that black Americans had gotten a very bum deal.

It made me mad, especially since I was a Jew coming from Germany, and I had a little idea of what it was like to get a bum deal.

Q: Are today's freshmen as well-prepared as those you taught 26 years ago?

A: On the average, students probably have not been as strongly prepared in math. It could be partly because of the large influx of calculators and computers. We didn't have calculators or computers. We had to think about whether an answer made sense or not.

Q: In your visits to elementary, middle and high schools, do you find students are interested in science?

A: Plenty of students and [high school] teachers are very motivated and interested and trying to do the best they can. Even those students who have a little difficulty with the theoretical part of chemistry really seem to get a big kick out of making things in the laboratory and seeing interesting things happening.

Q: Are they as able?

A: They ask very intelligent, searching questions, so some ability is there. A considerable number of students with the potential to really do well in science and keep America going are out there.

Q: Do teachers have what they need to keep kids motivated?

A: They are tremendously enthusiastic, but they are so limited in the amount of experiments they can perform with their students.

There is no question that budget cuts have hurt, and I'm sure Baltimore City schools desperately need more.

Q: What is the significance of poorly supplied science labs?

A: The laboratory is the part that excites a lot of the students.

They are children of the television age, so, naturally, something they can see may excite them more than something theoretical.

We may actually be losing some students who are potentially interested, but there aren't enough laboratory facilities to allow them to do very much. Maybe those students sort of fall through the cracks.

Q: Is there a way for others to address this problem?

A: By having people from colleges go there, and by having the students come to the colleges -- both of which we do here at Morgan. Certainly that's a very good way of filling the gap.

Q: How well are we doing as a nation in college-level science education?

A: Apparently other countries are doing better.

A higher percentage of students is going into science in Japan, Germany and England. These other countries are ahead of the United States until you get to graduate school.

We've got the best graduate schools.

Q: Those graduate-science programs are attracting many foreign students. How well are they attracting minority Americans?

A: It's still true that African-Americans are under-represented in chemistry, physics and biology.

We have to work harder to excite them about what a wonderful career science research is. Morgan's chemistry major has been increasing recently, which is very encouraging. We have 600 alumni chemistry majors to inspire students.

It's not an easy way to success, but it's worth all the effort it takes.

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