Les Vadasz: Making Schools Better

IEEE Life Fellow spends his free time giving back to local schools

5 October 2012

A refugee to Canada from the 1956 Hungarian Revolution at age 20, Les Vadasz says he never would have been able to forge a successful life in North America had it not been for a solid education.

Nine years after graduating in 1961 from McGill University, in Montreal, with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Vadasz became a founding member of Intel Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif. He worked there until his retirement in 2003, serving as Intel’s executive vice president and a member of the board of directors, as well as president of Intel Capital, its global investing division.

“That education at McGill was what really allowed me to be where I am today,” he says. After college he worked in solid-state electronics at the now-defunct Transitron Electronic Corp., in Boston, and the research and development labs of Fairchild Semiconductor Corp. in Palo Alto, Calif.

“I was not in a financial position to afford to pay for an education on my own,” he says. “I was able to finance it with the help of many scholarships, grants, and private donations. As I got closer to retirement, I felt I needed to give back. I feel strongly about education being able to level the playing field.”

That passion has turned into an ongoing effort to overhaul the preuniversity educational system in Sonoma, Calif., one of his hometowns (he splits his time living there and in Santa Clara). For the past decade, Vadasz has been spearheading programs there to bring multidisciplinary science, technology, and English language lessons to some 4300 students. Volunteers help teachers incorporate science and technology projects in their curricula in ways that also help students shore up their English skills.

“There’s a lot of need here. It’s a community with a large Latino population and English-language learners who are socioeconomically pressed,” he says. “While some of our volunteers, including retired engineers, help out in the classroom, our focus is on working with teachers and the school’s administration to help create permanent change.”

The programs are partially funded through the Vadasz Family Foundation, an endowment he and his wife, Judy, formed in the 1990s. The first program, in 1999, helped improve elementary school reading comprehension. That was followed by summer courses in 2005 to enhance teachers’ computer skills and show them how to incorporate computers into their curricula. “The program opened teachers’ eyes to what computers could do to help them with their work,” Vadasz says. “It also made them more comfortable with a technology that many students were already familiar with.”

Vadasz’s work has earned him high praise. “This man has changed the face of education in Sonoma Valley,” says the school district’s superintendent, Louann Carlomagno. She points out that the Vadasz Family Foundation has subsidized a second preschool class to accommodate those on a waiting list, a summer reading academy to bring third-graders up to grade-level reading ability, the Algebra Boot Camp for incoming ninth-graders, and a trip for seven teachers to the National Academy Foundation in Washington, D.C., where they focused on methods for imparting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.

About four years ago, Vadasz helped organize a joint program between the Sonoma Valley school district and the Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco to reinvigorate science education in elementary schools. The program had an unusual twist: the use of discovery-based teaching—an emphasis on learning by doing, rather than memorizing—not only to teach science but also to teach English comprehension. Students conducted science experiments and then had to explain in English what they did, thus learning the language within a context and not just by rote memorization of vocabulary. The program earned kudos in 2010 from the U.S. Department of Education and, with it, nearly US $2.9 million from its Investing in Innovation Fund to expand the program throughout the Sonoma system.

Vadasz says he has seen measureable progress. In 2008, 45 percent of the district’s eighth grade students scored proficient in science in the California Standards Tests. That jumped to 71 percent in 2011. Last year, for the first time in several years, a number of students won awards at the county science fair.

For the past two years Vadasz has been helping the district design a new program using a method developed by ConnectEd, the California Center for College and Career, in Berkeley, with support from the National Academy Foundation in New York. Called Linked Learning, the method integrates career-based curricula with core academics to prepare high school students for college or a career. Students are taught in an interdisciplinary manner, and internships are incorporated. In August approximately 55 out of 300 Sonoma Valley High School sophomores elected to embark on the first career track—in engineering, design, and technology—which was chosen by students and faculty.

“I didn’t have anything to do with that decision,” Vadasz says. “I was surprised, because engineering is one of the tougher subjects.”

The program is operating with an initial $150 000 grant from the Vadasz Family Foundation along with a matching grant from the James Irvine Foundation of San Francisco. The goal is to roll out additional career tracks for the high school during the next five years. The school district, with support from the Vadasz Family Foundation, hopes to raise enough funds to meet the roughly $2 million cost.

 “You have to change the way teachers teach, work with each other, and interact with the community—which is hard to do,” Vadasz says. “These things are not overnight steps. It’s a long process. But if we succeed, we will graduate more students, and they will be more ready to make better career choices.”

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