Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 10/24/2014 3:32:33 AM CST

Top Stories

Manya Gupta/Medill 

Riaz-ul Haque launched a private science center in Chicago to excite students of all ages with hands-on science classes.  

Retired scientist spreads the joy for science

by Manya Gupta
Nov 24, 2009

Manya Gupta/Medill 

 A unique exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry inspires people to learn science.

In the summer of 1967, WLS radio aired an advertisement for a man who was “looking for people without any science background to work in the laboratory.” To the 20 unemployed people who responded, he taught a 20-week, nine-hour-a-day, unique science class that changed their lives forever.

Since then, every summer, men and women, young and old, congregate in a 14,000 square-feet house in the Little Italy neighborhood of Chicago, to be a part of the practical science learning program at the Center for General and Applied Education and learn from its founder, Riaz-ul Haque.

“We have to make science palatable,” Haque said about his one-of-its kind program.

Dressed in a crisp white shirt, black trousers and a woolen black coat, Haque sat in the main lab of the institute surrounded by microscopes, chemicals and other paraphernalia while talking about the center. He said the center was established on the premise that science cannot be learned by just reading textbooks and needs to be understood through practical examples.

“I want to revive the way science was taught in the ‘50s and the ‘60s where the knowledge was going from the inventors to the people,” he said. “Once-a-year science fairs will not make scientists.”

Born in colonial India in 1935, Haque, 74, was raised in an educated family in Pakistan. After earning his degree in microbiology and zoology from the University of Karachi, he worked in a chemical plant in Multan before moving to Ohio State University, Columbus, in 1957 to pursue a master’s and PhD in microbiology.

He joined the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1963 as a microbiology instructor to pursue his passion for teaching but was stifled by the immense focus on research. That is when he decided to offer independent classes for anyone who was “willing to learn.”

“We have after-school music, sports and arts lesson, but no after-school science lessons,” he said, adding that he wants to get people back in touch with science by learning those basic skills that scientists use in their everyday work.

His initiative was soon noticed by the local authorities and the mayor’s office awarded him a $24,000 grant to teach 60 minority students as part of the equal rights movement to bring minorities to colleges. The program lasted for two years, but Haque had found his calling by then. He founded the International Institute of Biochemical and Biomedical Technology in 1969 to foster science education.

Since then he has trained more than 3,000 people with his unique program, which is recognized by the state education board. He has also taken his philosophy to other nations traveling with his microscope to grade schools and performing road shows to educate people about everyday science.

“One 11-year-old kid stood up and said that is why my mother is always sick,” he said, while reminiscing his experience in an Iranian village where he showed a water molecule, taken from a local well, under a microscope.

Michele Perisic, an undergraduate student at UIC said she was intrigued by Haque‘s extensive knowledge and his approach to teaching science. Perisic, who is an English major on the pre-medical track, said that unlike other professors who were looking for science majors, Haque welcomed her at his center. 

"He doesn’t mind what academic background his students come from because he wants everyone to develop solid basic skills,” she said.

Lori Bobak, who enrolled for a three-week program at the center in 2007, said Haque’s approach to teaching science is very different from what people are accustomed to. Bobak, a Chicago high school math and science coach, said that as a teacher she was able to take her experiences to her students who were thrilled to learn science the new way. 

“I highly recommend it to all my colleagues,” she said. “I think the Chicago Public Schools should build something around it.”

But running the center has not been a smooth ride for this emeritus associate professor of UIC. The finances have been hard to come by. He said he has spent most of his life savings in building and running the center. “I am digging out my savings,” he said. “I barely make $2,000 per month by selling equipment and rarely available chemical samples to the colleges.”

However, that has not dampened his spirit. Over the years his center has grown from a small hall to a two-story building. “It has come a long way,” said Charles Routen, who has volunteered at the center for last three years.

Haque has collected equipment from dismantled labs, cheap online stores and garbage cans. Family, local institutes and former students also contributed to its growth and today it boasts of not just a well-equipped scientific laboratory, but also a small music and theatre area, a buffet table and a research facility, making Haque rename the place as the Center for General and Applied Education in 2000.

Haque is now looking to start specific courses in laboratory technology for technicians and get an accreditation for the program from the North Central Association of Colleges and Universities. But he is most excited about organizing theme-based workshops and tours of the institute for people on weekends.

“People who got scared of science can come here to learn again,” he said.