Most companies are not run by Paul Kelly, College of Engineering alumnus and CEO of REO, Research Electro-Optics, in Boulder, Colorado.
Kelly has always had a deep interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education because he thinks that kids are not aware enough of the possibilities that exist in these fields.
“I believe very strongly that each of us has a skill, a capability, a talent inside of us, and it’s just a matter of finding that,” says Kelly, who has a master’s degree from CMU in metallurgical engineering.
In 2010, Kelly was unsure how to pursue his interest in education. At the age of 58, he joined Teach for America. However, while teaching middle school science in Southern Mississippi, Kelly realized that his talents would be better applied elsewhere. Instead of teaching in a classroom, he decided to expose high school students to career options in his line of work—optics.
“You don’t have to go to Southern Mississippi to do something great for underserved kids,” says Kelly. “You can do it anywhere if you run a company well, do the right things for the culture, and mentor kids.”
Kelly returned to Boulder as CEO of REO, a precision optics manufacturing company. REO manufactures optics for use in industrial and medical applications, such as metal cutting and drilling, tattoo removal, and Lasik surgery. In addition, the company provides optics that are used in defense applications: 35 optics in the F35, and a number of applications for laser targeting and electronic countermeasures.
You can do something great anywhere if you run a company well, do the right things for the culture, and mentor kids.Paul Kelly , CEO, Research Electro-Optics
Kelly worked with Front Range Community College in Boulder to design a special program for recent high school graduates. They geared the program toward minority students, those who would be the first in their family to graduate from college, and others who were not positioned financially or academically to go to college.
Students in the program spend half of their time in class and the other half getting hands-on training in REO’s state-of-the-art facility. REO’s employees, 13 of whom have Ph.D.s, carry the teaching load for these classes. If the student decides to go beyond the Associate’s Degree, REO reimburses 100% of their tuition costs, as they do for all of their employees.
REO has invested in six apprentices to date. When these apprentices are not taking optics classes at the community college, they are working in the manufacturing process in which optics are fabricated, a thin film coating is applied, and the optics are integrated into subassemblies where precise measurements are taken to ensure they are meeting the demanding requirements of REO’s customers. The company was recently visited by U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta as part of the administration’s interest in growing the apprenticeship initiative across the country.
Integrating itself into the community, REO judges high school science fairs and sends female engineers to schools during Women in Engineering week. High school teachers visit the company to get a better understanding of what high-tech manufacturing jobs entail. REO also participates in Backpacks to Briefcases, a yearly luncheon that focuses on the transition from being in high school to going into business.
It’s our responsibility—those of us in this profession—to expose kids to the fun and beauty of science.Paul Kelly, CEO, Research Electro-Optics
Spreading his commitment to STEM education beyond Boulder, Kelly established a $50,000 fund, the Kenneth J. and Paul C. Kelly Technology Outreach Fund, at Carnegie Mellon. This fund supports several projects, including a large STEM outreach event that occurred last winter.
The fund is named in part for Kelly’s late father Kenneth, who ran the materials lab at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, and worked on the Manhattan Project in WWII at the Oak Ridge National Labs. The influence the elder Kelly had on his son is evident. Kenneth, who earned a master’s degree in chemistry, stirred Paul’s interest in metallurgical engineering. When Kenneth retired, he tutored kids in math and science. Continuing the tradition, Paul’s son, Brian Kelly, is a middle school teacher in an economically deprived neighborhood in South Chicago.
“I wanted to honor my father by setting up this fund that would carry on his mission, by exposing and supporting kids who have an interest in technology and science careers,” says Kelly. “It’s our responsibility—those of us in this profession—to expose kids to the fun and beauty of science.”