Obituary: MVHS project director, former teacher remembered

Oct. 21, 2002, midnight | By Kevin Fang | 21 years, 7 months ago

Mary Ellen Verona, project director for Maryland Virtual High School (MVHS) and a former Magnet teacher, died Oct 7, 2002 from complications of cancer.

Her death notice, which ran in the Oct 9 issue of The Washington Post, is copied below:

On Monday, October 7, 2002, MARY ELLEN VERONA of Rockville, MD. Beloved wife of Joseph M. Ruyter; loving mother of Anthony Verona; stepmother of Lisa, Daniel and Kenneth Ruyter; sister of Catherine Ulasewicz; step-grandmother of Joseph and James Ruyter. Friends may call at DeVOL FUNERAL HOME, 10 E. Deer Park Dr., Gaithersburg, MD on Friday, from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, 6701 Muncaster Mill Rd., Derwood, MD on Saturday, October 12 at 10:30 a.m. Interment Gate of Heaven Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, PO Box 650309, Dallas, TX 75265-0309.

Verona came to Blair in 1987 as a computer science teacher in the Magnet program, despite teaching mathematics at her previous school, Eleanor Roosevelt High School.

In 1991, Verona began working on a proposal to obtain what would ultimately be a $442,649 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Verona single-handedly obtained this 1994-1995 grant that, after two renewals, totaled to an estimated value of $1.6 million.

The grant, for MVHS, supplied 14 high schools throughout Maryland with direct connections to the Internet. MVHS is a partnership of high school mathematics and science teachers from all over the state that works to implement modeling and visualization in the classroom via the Internet. Even today, MVHS still receives funding from NSF grants.

Verona brought her Magnet experiences with her when she left the program in 1994 to become the project director of MVHS. "She believed in taking the great model of collaboration and the interdisciplinary work of the Magnet, and be able to spread it to schools throughout Maryland," said current Academy coordinator, and former center director of MVHS, Susan Ragan.

Critics of the program, however, believed that the software used as a part of the program would be too complicated for high school students. Still, Verona proceeded with her work. "She had the vision to see the potential use of very sophisticated tools like three-dimensional modeling and modeling software in a high school environment where other people thought it would be too [complicated]," Ragan said.

During her time in the Magnet, Verona coached a team of students who participated in the now defunct SuperQuest supercomputer contest, then sponsored by Control Data Corporation and ETA Systems. In 1988, Dan Mall, Maneesh Agrawala, Sven Khatri and Howard Gobioff (all alumni of the class of 1989 with the exception of Agrawala who graduated in 1990) comprised one of the four finalist teams selected to go to St. Paul, MN for seven weeks to receive training on the computer system. The proposed projects of the teams were implemented, evaluated and, for a second place win, Blair received a Cyber 910 workstation computer.

Along with the workstation, Blair received a direct Internet connection, making it the sole school in the county with Internet access. This connection spawned the server that Blair still possesses today.

At the time, the Internet was a relatively new concept, and Verona was actively involved in seeing that Blair was up to speed. "It had to have started somewhere, and she was instrumental in getting [the Internet] set up for the Magnet," said Magnet coordinator Eileen Steinkraus, who, prior to assuming her current position, was an Earth Science teacher in the Magnet program.

Besides her accomplishments, colleagues, teachers and students alike will remember Verona as a cordial and focused individual with a passion to learn and to teach.

According to Magnet math teacher Nannette Dyas, Verona was always coming up with new ideas and new methods to teach. "She would teach something one way one year and teach it another way the next," she said. "She was constantly thinking of new ways to do things."

Steinkraus expressed the same opinion about Verona's creativity. "If I had an idea or concept I wanted to discuss, I could talk to Mary Ellen and she would have all these connections," she said. Steinkraus added that Verona was "one of those people who had the vision, but went out and did it."

Verona was also a teacher who motivated her students and drove them to succeed, a quality that teachers such as social studies teacher Jim Mogge found commendable. "I suppose I could say that it is a true testament to a teacher that her students acquired great knowledge and consistently reflected her positive enthusiasm in their interaction with others," he said.

From a student perspective, Verona was an equally admired person. She spent time with her students on a variety of projects at all times of the year. "Ms Verona sacrificed her personal time on evenings, weekends, and during the summer to help her students achieve their goals," said Mall.

Verona was also patient and understanding of mistakes. System/Network Administrator for MVHS, junior Lauren Cohen, remembers an experience in which she accidentally backed up links to files rather than the files themselves. "Instead of getting angry and firing me," she said, "Ms Verona just laughed and wished me luck with retrieving the files form the tape backups that we had luckily made."

According to fellow Administrator Junior Jared Osborn, Verona accepted these blunders because she viewed erring as a method of learning.

Verona's influence spread far beyond the doors of Blair. "There has been an outpouring of support from partnerships made through NSF grants," Ragan said.

Groups such as The National Center of Supercomputer Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and The Shodor Education Foundation, Inc. will support the continuation of Verona's work. "I'm heartened that the people who have supported her in the past wish to continue their support in her memory," Ragan said.

The Supercomputer convention will dedicate this year's education program in Verona's memory as well.

Verona had recently finished her doctoral dissertation in computational science from George Mason University. Though she was unable to defend her work before her death, the university awarded her the degree posthumously.

Verona was also mentoring senior Jonathan Edwards for his Senior Research Project for the Magnet program at the time of her passing. The project, unofficially titled "Global and Local Water Cycle Models," involved the development of an interface that, using two different programs, would compute water movement between reservoirs. The project will now be headed by Ragan, but "we're still working out the details,"; said Edwards.

Verona will be missed by members of the Blair community and beyond. As horticulture teacher Leslie Backus put it, "What a loss for us, for Blair and, to quote d'Arcy Sloe, ‘for the whole world.'"

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