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Robert "Dr. Rob" Condon

2021 Fainting Robin Distinguished Scholar

From the kindergarteners looking forward to their first day of school, to the Ph.D candidates trying to complete their dissertations, 2020 was a lost year for American students. After discussions with the board, Fainting Robin Foundation decided to give our 2021 Distinguished Scholar award to a teacher and scholar who rose to the challenge of teaching during the COVID pandemic. Today, in academia, there are scholars who devote their careers to research, professors who devote their careers to teaching, and bureaucrats who devote their careers to meetings and administration. There are, however, very few academics who are great scholars, teachers and administrators. Australian-American marine biologist, Rob “Dr. Rob” Condon, is one of them.

Internationally renowned in his field, Condon’s research on global jellyfish populations, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and zooplankton in Sargasso Sea, has been published in numerous peer reviewed journal articles and he has appeared on BBC and CBS Sunday Morning, in Huffington Post, The New York Times, MacLean Magazine, and Wired. Irrespective of these professional accomplishments, Condon walked away from a career in academia to establish the Young Scientist Academy (YSA) in Wilmington, North Carolina, to provide science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education for students from all racial and economic backgrounds. “Science is a way of life and a powerful tool for solving community problems,” wrote Condon, “Never has it been more clear that we need to prepare the next generation with the tools and confidence to address future challenges using science.”

After the COVID crisis hit and American teachers were forced to pivot to online classes overnight, many low income students, who lack access to high speed internet and reliable computers, were left behind. By the end of the first grading period in Wilmington, North Carolina’s New Hanover County school district (October 2020), 36% of middle school students and 29% percent of high school students were failing at least one class. The numbers for Black and Hispanic middle school and high school students failing at least one class were much higher (44% and 41%).

In 2020, YSA shifted their focus to underserved and at-risk minority populations. In addition to awarding over 100 full scholarships to deserving students, YSA also created innovative online programs that provided over 100 hours of free access to virtual lessons, homework assignments, and online tutoring. Last year alone, YSA mentored over 400 local youth in after-school and home-school programs, provided vital outreach services like help on homework, and summer programs. Despite the challenges of 2020, YSA even added exciting new programs like Code Girls, an intensive five-week program on computer coding and technology for girls. They also launched Sidewalk Science, an afterschool hands-on science class for kids held outside, under a tent in downtown Wilmington’s Northside.

If nothing else, the COVID pandemic has exposed the limits of technology-dependent online learning and served as a margin call for a top-heavy American educational system. Given how short traditional American education has fallen in recent years, innovative educators like Rob Condon deserve support, and remind us that teaching is an art and not a science.

Oil Field Work
Rob collecting a surface water sample for chemical analysis from the northern Gulf of Mexico during the December 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Future Leaders with their gardens
Rob works with youth in the Future Leaders program at StepUp Wilmington on the importance of community gardens in urban sustainability and healthy eating.
A Young Scientist Academy outdoor classroom in 2020
Rob teaches chemistry and physics to youth from the Voyage and Maides Park communities as part of the Sidewalk Science program in Wilmington's Northside.
Rob sorting plankton
Rob sorting through a nighttime plankton sample collected on the RV Atlantic Explorer research cruise examining marine food webs in the Sargasso Sea.
Dr. Rob in a classroom
Rob talking with St. Georges Preschool children in Bermuda about jellyfish and ocean animals. The jellyfish pictures were entries submitted by the children as part of an International Jellyfish Art Contest he conducted, in which over 500 children from 26 different countries participated.