ASU student mentors bring scientific research into high school classrooms

Getting to do research at the ASU Biodesign Institute when she was only 16 was a life-changing experience for Kathryn Scheckel. She loved being part of a team working on a goal, where she was able to see how scientists work collaboratively in the lab, how they gather and analyze data.

Now an ASU senior, Scheckel is helping bring the university research experience to other high school students through a student-led initiative called Quanta. Currently 30 ASU students volunteer as mentors for 60 freshmen in the Paradise Valley School District, helping them complete semester-long collaborative research projects that have real-world relevance.

The ASU students visit the high school several times during the semester but do most of their mentoring online, through Google chats, video conferencing and document-sharing. Around 15 ASU faculty members act as advisers, also hosting the younger students on field trips to their laboratories.

The 14-year-old participating high school students get to choose from a menu of research topics in sustainability and biotechnology, working in teams to produce a research paper and a podcast interview with an ASU scientist or local professional. They presented their findings to friends, teachers, mentors and the ASU community at a symposium on April 27.

“We knew this would be a huge undertaking, but when you set the bar high, it’s amazing how high the students can jump,” says Linda Coyle, curriculum specialist for the district. “Our kids can’t wait to sit down and do their homework.

“They are so excited about this experience. They enjoy the collaboration, the process, being treated like peers rather than 14-year-olds. They are learning amazing skills, how to put together an investigation, to read and write technical literature, to gather and analyze data. Our freshmen are producing products we’ve never seen before, making real contributions.”

Getting to do hands-on science projects is key to keeping high school students interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers, she says.

Scheckel and three other students applied for and received an Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative grant last year to develop the program, then recruited other mentors and faculty advisers. They also are the recent recipients of an Innovation Challenge grant.

Team members represent a wide variety of majors and colleges: Scheckel has a double major in molecular bioscience and piano; Christos Makridis is a senior in economics and mathematics; Sarah Albinda is a communications major and global health minor; Jing Gao is in industrial design and Banel Bucknor is in the master of science program in design. Others are in global politics, creative writing, computer information systems and English literature.

All share the belief that science is an interdisciplinary subject that encompasses many fields and has the ability to improve life for many people.

“Science comes in many forms, not just what happens in a lab,” says Scheckel. “We wanted to put science in into different contexts other than just lab-based experiments for high school students, to show them the possibilities of science.

“I had a fantastic experience doing research at ASU when I was in high school, and I wanted other students to have that chance. We thought by using college mentors we could bridge the gap between high school and the university, exposing students to college in such a way that they would think differently about their futures.”

Students in the current pilot program are enrolled in a specialty high school called CREST, the Center for Research in Engineering, Science and Technology. Scheckel says they will redesign the program to reach rural and underserved schools, once the pilot is over and they are prepared to transition to an exclusively online-based program.

The program is a boon to high school teachers, who don’t have time to set up a semester-long research project and don’t have contacts with ASU, says Coyle. Among the topics her students are researching are the types of biodegradable plastic, gene biology, bacteria and bioremediation agents, the future of cloning and the ethics of science.

The Quanta team is partnered with the School of Life Sciences and the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at ASU, as well as Triple Helix International. As the program evolves the team will survey research institutions and businesses to create a database of questions to provide to high school students to choose from, to motivate their research in real-world contexts.

Written by Sarah Auffret