Thursday, August 13, 2015

High school students do "real science" research

By Wills Citty

Deep underground in a basement auditorium, a high schooler is teaching about nanoparticles. It’s the end of a hot summer spent in cool laboratories for the fortunate juniors and seniors chosen for the research experience at UNC Charlotte. Delivering their presentations marks the culmination of more than a month of study for the six high school students, who were paired with professors to work on complex scientific questions.

The high schoolers were part of a paid internship program offered by UNC Charlotte’s Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education (CSTEM); it provided them the chance to perform real science on a college campus.

UNC Charlotte faculty researchers worked with
high school interns in a summer research program.
Dawson Hancock, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Education, said the quality of the students’ research was remarkable. “I was extremely impressed with the methodology and the soundness thereof, the detailed analyses, and the eloquence of the presentations was outstanding.”

The students’ investigations covered a range of scientific spheres. One looked at the possibility of making solar panels more efficient using microscopic silver particles. Another considered ways to improve photodynamic therapy — killing cancer cells with light.

Local student David Mack spent the summer researching how to use Doppler radar to help robots see and navigate better; his presentation, under the supervision of James Conrad, professor of electrical and computer engineering, was entitled “Using Robots and Range Finder Data to Create Navigational Maps.” For Mack, the research was the continuation of years of personal interest.

“Creating information gathering technology has interested me for a long time, since I was five as a matter of fact, and I thought that this experience would be a good opportunity to try my hand at it,” he said.

Victor Mack is the director of the Office of Educational Outreach at UNC Charlotte, and David Mack’s father. The elder Mack led the program from its inception on campus in 1998 through 2006. He said watching his son benefit from the experience was meaningful.

“I'm glad to see the program continue and be supported by the college,” said Mack. “For me, I feel as if I have come full circle. Rare are the opportunities to see our children benefit directly from our labor and excel. I'm extremely proud and thankful.”

The younger Mack said navigating the fast-paced environment of a university laboratory was a new experience, but that his supervising professor was receptive to questions and provided the needed guidance along the way.

A parent who attended the symposium said her son’s “personality changed completely” over the course of the six-week program, and that the experience went a long way to establishing work ethic.

The program was initially created through a National Science Foundation grant as part of a statewide program. That funding dried up, and UNC Charlotte is the only remaining site of the original six that maintains the program; discretionary funding from CSTEM has been used to keep it afloat.

Hancock said the summer research program is in sync with CSTEM’s overarching goals: to heighten the visibility and salience of these topics in the public consciousness.

“The centers were created because STEM wasn’t getting the level of attention it needed,” stated Hancock. “We recognized that in the global economy, the college needed to develop students’ talents and interests at a young age.”

Along with the summer research experience, CSTEM operates a pre-college program that helps prepare students from six nearby counties for math, science and engineering-based careers. The program is affiliated with the North Carolina Mathematics and Science Education Network and coordinated on campus by Shagufta Raja, a pre-college coordinator for CSTEM. It consists of a 12-week Saturday academy that meets during the school year, as well a summer scholars program separate from the more intensive summer research experience.

Hancock, who described these programs as a “win-win,” said, “Participants gain exposure to a university stetting, work with faculty in that environment and engage in depth in areas of STEM in which they are particularly interested. The University gains the benefit of exposing students to our campus, so they can hopefully develop a better understanding of what we have to offer, and maybe one day even become 49ers themselves.”

Concluding presentations by the other high school students were:
·       Kartheek Batchu’s ″Effect of Nanoparticle Sized Silver Paste on Contact Resistance,” supervised by Abasifreke Ebong, professor of electrical and computer engineering.

·       Ethan Wickliff’s ″Screen-printed Solar cell Efficiency Improvement Though use of Appropriate Ag Paste,” supervised by Ebong

·       Bhavana Ambil’s ″Effect of ADP on Actomyosin Dissociation,” supervised by Yuri Nesmelov, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Optical Science

·       Dean Tran’s ″The Use of Radio Waves in Determining Distances,” supervised by Conrad

·       Jared Johnson’s ″Improving Skin Permeation for Photodynamic Therapy,” supervised by Juan Vivero-Escoto, assistant professor of chemistry. 

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