Monday, March 10, 2003

Teacher shows it's cool to be a geek

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Meet Randy Wilson, geek hero.

He loves science, comic books and Legos. He builds rockets. He's so into Star Wars that he sometimes wears his Jedi robe to class.

Wilson is one of the most popular teachers at Ockerman Middle School in Boone County. Cheerfully proclaiming himself "Grand High Geek" of the school, he teaches students that it's OK to be smart, science-minded and more than a little eccentric.

In Wilson's classroom, the word "geek" isn't an insult but a badge of honor, signifying those gadget-obsessed, fashion-impaired guys who keep us all online.

Nationally, geeks have gained cachet with the rise of the Internet and the success of role models like Bill Gates. But it's still unusual to find an all-out embrace of geekiness among adolescents.

In middle school, test scores typically drop as students struggle with surging hormones and social concerns. Fitting in is paramount, and geeks have never been very good at that.

Wilson's solution: Take the traditional sting out of the label by proudly applying it to himself. Then do the same with students who exhibit the telltale signs.

"It's almost like we have a secret handshake," he jokes. "A sign tattooed on our foreheads that only we can see."

Wilson, 32, hands out "Honorary Science Geek" awards to top students at school ceremonies. He arranged for his robotics team to be recognized alongside athletes at pep rallies. And he sponsors a second club, for kids who play strategy games, that has grown to 70 active participants.

Within that group, students are affectionately known as "minor geeks" to their teacher's "grand high" version.

"Being a geek is cool," says sixth-grader Jason Reiter, one of the strategy club members. "If the teacher's a geek, then we have somebody old to stand up for us, if anyone thinks being a geek isn't fun."

Jedi robes and rockets

Wilson didn't set out to launch a geek-pride movement.

A science teacher at Ockerman for seven years, he had two initial goals: to challenge students academically, and to indulge his own passion for geeky fun.

His classroom is a monument to both.

Spaceships dangle from the ceiling. Posters of Einstein, Superman and the U.S.S. Enterprise cover the walls. Stacks of strategy games - chess, Axis & Allies, Stratego - share shelf space with books like Instant Physics.

A Star Wars fanatic, Wilson wears his custom-made Jedi robe to class when teaching the physics concept of force. It's not quite "May the force be with you," but his students get the idea.

To illustrate other scientific principles, Wilson has them build roller coasters out of toilet-paper tubes. When teaching jet propulsion, he shoots off rockets in a field.

"He exhibits a love for science that comes through to the kids," Ockerman Principal Mel Carroll says. "It makes science a living subject, if you will."

Of course, there is such a thing as too much living. Wilson's first foray into after-school enrichment, the Rocket Club, ended after one student's masterpiece landed on a car at a nearby stop sign.

In 1998, he came up with an earthbound alternative: the Ockerman Strategists' Guild.

Every other Friday, about 30 sixth-graders pour into Wilson's classroom after school. (Older club members meet on alternate Fridays.) They grab board games, chess sets and decks of cards. Soon the room is abuzz with shouts of encouragement and groans of frustration.

"Your formation is awesome!" one boy says to another during a game of Naval Attack. (Official description: "Use strategy to seek out and sink enemy vessels.")

Wilson forbids the playing of video games or anything else he deems mindless. The point of the club is to build critical-thinking skills in a social setting, he says.

Youthful loneliness overcome

As a bookish kid growing up in rural Drakesboro, Ky., (population 500), he missed out on such opportunities himself.

"I'm a geek, and I never hid it," says Wilson, whose hometown is about 200 miles southwest of Cincinnati. "I had a few friends, but they always kind of hid it, and it just didn't seem right."

Now he's making up for lost time. In addition to the Strategists' Guild, he sponsors Ockerman's robotics team, whose 20 members use Lego kits to build computerized robots for competition with other schools.

On a recent afternoon, the students put their robots through a series of tasks while Wilson strolled from table to table.

Eyeing a particularly unwieldy creation, he reminded one student of Newton's second law.

"It would help if your robot didn't have the mass of a neutron star," he said casually, one geek to another. "There's a cold front developing around that thing."

When the robotics team started, a few students confided that they were getting teased by classmates. That's when Wilson began promoting a sort of geek ideology.

Athletics in perspective

"Schools seem to always cater to athletes," he says. "There's nothing wrong with that, but a lot of times, there's no outlet for people to flex their academic muscles."

He arranged for his robotics team to wear special T-shirts and get recognized at school pep rallies. He started representing himself as flamboyantly geeky. And when his best students finished assignments early, he let them do independent research under what he called GEEK contracts, for "Gifted Educationally Exceptional Kids."

Of course, the word "geek" is still used as an insult by some students. But Wilson's approach has made an impact, kids say.

"At Ockerman, so many people began to identify themselves with geek qualities... that it was no longer a bad thing to be a geek," says Joe Gallenstein, now a sophomore at Boone County High School.

Joe is a classic member of the species. By eighth grade, he was reading magazines such as The New Republic and Alternative Press Review. Now 15, he's a nimble conversationalist, jumping from topics as diverse as identity politics to Baroque-era music.

At Ockerman, Joe says, the Strategists' Guild helped build his social skills while introducing him to the wide-ranging interests of other geeks.

He also learned from Wilson's example.

"You hit middle school and you see this guy with a ponytail who wears his Jedi robe and who's into the same things you are," Joe says. "And suddenly it's not a bad thing. You think, `I have these parts of me, too.'"

Another Wilson protege, 15-year-old Spencer Greenhalgh, periodically returns to Ockerman after school for rounds of Star Wars role play. He, Wilson and a handful of other former students follow hundreds of pages of rules for staying in character and working through Star Wars scenarios.

"He's called me the biggest geek he's ever known," says Spencer, who has memorized most of the massive rulebook.

"When people use (geek) as an insult, it means, `You're different, and that's bad,'" Spencer explains.

"When (Wilson) uses it, it means, `You're different, and that's good.'"


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