OXFORD, Miss. – University of Mississippi graduate student Raymond Holt dramatically influenced the worlds of computer science and flight in 1970 when he invented the world’s first microprocessor chip, a technological leap that enabled the U.S. military to run integrated flight control systems in the F-14 Tomcat fighter plane.
Forty-three years later, the retired Silicon Valley computer designer, whose invention design was finally declassified in 1998, is using his engineering experience to teach children in Mount Olive about science and robotics. He also has completed the requirements for a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction at Ole Miss as a graduate fellow at the university’s Center for Mathematics and Science Education, or CMSE. He was among some 3,000 candidates for degrees at Saturday’s Commencement ceremonies.
“I didn’t originally plan on visiting Mississippi,” Holt said. “I was sitting in my driveway in Oklahoma in my motor home that I had just bought to travel the country. I’d sold my house and I had to be out in a couple of days when a friend from Mississippi called and invited me visit his nonprofit ministry, R.E.A.L. Christian Foundation. He said he would have me check out the computers in the ministries. After two weeks, I knew I should stay. I liked helping rural ministries.”
After deciding to stay in Mississippi, Holt met Tony Duckworth of Mount Olive Ministries in Mount Olive. The organization provides children and teenagers with educational opportunities to promote an interest in academics and helps prevent students from dropping out of high school.
“Ray’s attitude about his achievements inspire our kids to dream again,” Duckworth said. “They know that their dreams can become a reality.”
Holt suggested starting a robotics team in Mount Olive to spark an interest in the students, and it worked. During the first-ever statewide high school robotics competition hosted by the CMSE in February, Holt’s group, dubbed Team Purple Thunder, took first and second place in two different categories. Their robotic successes continued from there. In late April, the team competed against 128 other robotics teams from 28 countries in the FIRST World Robotics Championship in St. Louis, placing 13th out of 64 in their division. The team was ranked first among first-time competitors.
“He really inspired us to do well in the competitions,” said Mount Olive ninth-grader Whitney Schreiber. “We’re just a small town that never really gets anything, and he teaches us so much.”
Holt splits his time between Oxford, where he is completing student teaching in mathematics at Lafayette High School, and Mount Olive. Throughout the year, he has made efforts to help his students in Mount Olive expand their horizons. Besides visiting St. Louis in April, Team Purple Thunder visited the Nissan plant in Canton last November. Last March, the team toured the UM School of Engineering and the Center for Manufacturing Excellence.
“When you show students what’s possible, you can see them become excited,” Holt said. “After they saw real engineers program robots to preform tasks to build a truck, they started to realize that they’re doing same thing with our robot on a smaller scale. They realized how much they could actually do.”
Offered at UM since 2010, the Master of Arts in Curriculum and Instruction is a one-year master’s program designed to help college graduates with noneducation degrees transition into teaching at the secondary level. After hearing about Holt’s robotics program, the CMSE offered him a fellowship that included full tuition, office space at the center and access to a variety of professional development and educational materials to complete the degree.
“Seeing the struggling that the youth have in Mount Olive, I had no idea our after-school programs could grow to this,” Holt said. “Our first goal was to make sure none of our children drop out of high school, and the second one was that their GPA would be a 3.0. Now, nine out of 11 students make straight As. Two of our past students have been accepted to Ole Miss.”
Holt said he hopes his new training will help him instill confidence and ambition into more children, particularly those who have an opportunity to become first-generation college students and who may have never previously considered a career in science or engineering. He hopes that in coming years, he can help grow after-school programs in rural communities throughout the state. All 11 members of Team Purple Thunder planned to visit Holt during graduation on Saturday.
“This degree has been way too much work to say it’s just for me,” said Holt. “Working with youth is my passion. I have students who now say ‘I want to come to Ole Miss to study robotics,’ I consider that a real success.”