Education and Inspiration

By John R. Vollaro              February 2003

PS 217 was the public K–8 school that I attended and it was within walking distance of our home. The Catholic school attached to the church we went to was also within walking distance and I went there too but only for religious education. I was at best an average student and was not gifted in any particular subjects. I trundled through the system without enthusiasm and managed to learn the basics. My brother Joe on the other hand showed exceptional talent in mathematics and graduated with the schools math award. He took a difficult and very competitive entrance exam for a prestigious technical high school in Brooklyn and was easily accepted. It was a big let down when I took the same test 4 years later and was not accepted. Instead I went off to the regional high school for 4 more years of poor to average performance as a less than enthusiastic student.

Fortunately, a small ember began to glow inside me during these years of burnout in the traditional school system. I think it began when I was 10 years old. I had a flash light that stopped working so I took it apart. I was delighted to find out that I could make the light work by connecting the batteries to the bulb with some wire. This intriguing discovery quickly blossomed into a cardboard box with lights, switches and a buzzer cobbled into it. I imagined it to be the cockpit of a plane, the dashboard of a racing car and the controls for a rocket ship and a submarine. Since there was no support for the subject of electricity in the school system I began to read and study on my own to answer the many questions I had.

The following year I took a step that was the beginning of a bold new adventure for me. I had heard about an instrument called an oscilloscope that could trace the flow of electricity in a circuit by deflecting an electron beam over a phosphor coated screen. The concept was easy enough for me to understand and when I discovered that I could get one in kit form, I saved the enormous sum of $75 and bought the kit. Fortunately the step by step instructions were simple enough for an 11 year old to follow. Beyond the assembly instructions, the kit showed me how components were assembled into functional circuits, and how the circuits were used as building blocks to form a complex system. I remember plugging it in when it was finished and wondering if my $75 would go up in smoke. When the panel lit up and the bright green trace formed on the screen, I lit up inside too. My confidence soared and I began to take apart radios and TVs just to probe the circuits with this amazing instrument. In the process I learned to spot a burned out tube or a scorched resistor and more often than not could make a faulty appliance work again.

I quickly discovered a whole catalog of electronic devices in kit form and I was hooked on them. I built a portable radio and got my parents to invest in a Hi Fi system which I constructed from a kit. I was able to support this expensive new hobby by working at the corner drug store after school. The owner of the drug store was interested in amateur radio and he encouraged me to get involved too. It was a natural progression from what I was doing and I began to study for the license exam which was a challenging test of radio and electronic theory. By the time I was 15 I was a licensed amateur radio operator with a powerful radio station that I had constructed largely from kits.

When I graduated from high school I had to make a decision about college. My parents encouraged me to go continue my education in every way that they could. They would pay my way even though it would mean financial hardship for them. They wisely predicted that my earning power would be hampered if I did not get a college degree. I heard and understood this but could not ignore certain facts. I was not a good student and anticipated certain failure. By now I was certain that I wanted a career in electronics but an engineering degree was daunting because of my weakness in mathematics. I sought some professional guidance and they agreed with me in this assessment. They suggested I seek a two year degree in electronics technology at a local community college.

I did surprisingly well in the two year curriculum. For the first time I was enthusiastic about what was being taught. It filled in the blank areas that were left from my self teaching effort and extended my understanding of the fundamentals of electronics. The reduced math requirement was manageable and I even grew to like trigonometry when I saw how powerful it was in solving electronic problems. I graduated on the deans list and began to think about what would happen next.

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