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ASU launches Quanta: a digital research program for high school students

ASU, Quanta, research program for high school students
October 14, 2013

Arizona State University has launched the first cohort of Quanta, a new online research program that harnesses social networking and e-learning to connect high school students with ASU students and scientists. Quanta is a massive, online, open research platform (MOOR) that serves as a portal into university research that gives any student the opportunity to engage with research and work with experienced mentors on topics they, themselves, are passionate about.

The program allows students to interact with real research challenges, sourced from the university, while simultaneously exploring what they enjoy about various research fields. Students gain valuable exposure ranging from fields such as biochemistry and environmental history to arts and humanities.

“ASU is committed to expanding research opportunities for our students, including highly motivated and bright students from Arizona high schools, through this new and innovative program we have launched, called Quanta,” said Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, senior vice president for ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development. “Quanta exemplifies the spirit of ASU by engaging students in solving problems that not only contribute to broadening their intellect, but also provide the opportunity to create societal impact.”

The first stage of the program will run until Dec. 6, after which, the students will report on the processes and outcomes for their respective projects.

Kathryn Scheckel, director of Quanta, started the program in the hopes that it would bolster creative problem-solving and foster student-driven research in Arizona – and eventually, spur a new movement in research nationally, where problems to grand challenges in research are crowdsourced from a passionate community of students.

“We are excited for our users to build a robust, online research community and test out the ideas we’ve been working on for the past several months to build a space for any student, anywhere, to gain a window into the university,” said Scheckel. “And, to be a model for researchers to expose students to real projects while simultaneously providing high-quality, student-driven mentorship.”

The program is geared toward passionate high school students, engaged researchers and university students as mentors.

Approximately 250 students from three Arizona schools have signed up for the first cohort of Quanta, with 15 student mentors from ASU. Schools include the ASU Preparatory Academies from the downtown Phoenix and Polytechnic campuses, and the Center for Research in Engineering Science & Technology (CREST), within Paradise Valley High School.

Projects are developed by professors at ASU, although eventually, students will be encouraged to submit suggestions about research they are currently working on or would like to work on in the future.

Students work on projects in teams, ranging from three to five members, overseen by a university student mentor. Among the research projects as part of Quanta for this cohort include the following:

DNA origami

DNA origami has broad implications in the future of nanotechnology, and students will be designing and testing the stability of different DNA structures and identifying ways to simplify them.

“As a lab, we are thrilled to be getting involved in this pioneering program at the ground level,” said Hao Yan, professor and director of the new Center for Molecular Design and Biomimicry within ASU’s Biodesign Institute. “This online platform is an ideal way to get students from different demographics, backgrounds, educational levels and interests actively involved in a research environment.

“Providing young students access to real lab experiences, research and senior mentors is an ideal way to prepare them for the future, no matter what their area of interest or career path is. The approach to conducting research is very logical, and in most cases, the lessons learned from systematically analyzing a research problem can directly be translated to our everyday lives. We are also excited about the prospect of evaluating our own research challenges using the data and feedback that we receive from the mentee’s ‘fresh pairs of eyes.’”

Yan is the primary investigator in one of Quanta’s original projects, where he and his students explore different models of nanoscale DNA structures.


The “Documerica” project is focused on developing new ways to teach environmental history to high school and college students, as well as the general public.

"Quanta provides an unprecedented opportunity: to broaden research teams and open the research process to include a wider diversity of participants, and to help develop students into critical thinkers and world citizens ready to solve the problems of the future,” said Cody Ferguson, postdoctoral scholar in Environmental and Public Humanities, ASU School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies.

“I am excited to see what questions the high school students, working with their student mentors, come up with that I can't even imagine. And I'm equally excited to see the creative ways in which they answer those questions.”

Ferguson is the primary investigator for the "Documerica" Quanta’s project, where he and his students use “Documerica” photographs to examine environmental change in the United States over the past four decades.

Digital Culture Creative Classrooms

“Digital Culture Creative Classrooms” introduces high school students to the ideas, tools and technologies involved in computational creativity and digital culture.

“Quanta is important and exciting because it provides students with a unique window on what it means to be a scientist or artist, or to do research at a high level,” said David Tinapple, assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering within ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. “It's less about teaching students specific skills than showing them what is involved in working at this level and the impacts it can have. It's a rich and engaging introduction to the 'why' of the university.”

Tinapple is leading this Quanta project. The Digital Culture program's goal is to bring the proficiency-based curriculum designed for undergraduates to middle and high school classrooms.

The goal of Quanta is to expand student enrollment for the spring phase and deepen the program’s reach beyond Arizona. High school students from every region are encouraged to apply.

The next cohort of the project will begin in January 2014; applications for Quanta will become available in late November of this year.

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