Mentoring high schooler presents opportunity for grad student

photo of Wen-Ching Chuang

Researchers at Arizona State University are mentoring high school students and providing them with the tools to conduct research in cutting-edge laboratories.

One such opportunity has been made possible by the Southwest Center for Education and the Natural Environment (SCENE), a nonprofit organization that partners with ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability to offer a program called Research Experiences for High School Students. The program, which has been offered since 1998, gives high school students the opportunity to work closely with researchers and work on their own original research questions.

Wen-Ching Chuang, a graduate student at the School of Sustainability, is one of the many researchers mentoring a local high school student this year. Chuang’s current research focuses on the physical and social factors that affect a city’s capacity to cope with extreme heat events.

The School of Sustainability, which offers students a wide range of classes in order to help students address sustainability challenges, has provided Chuang with real-world experience that she can share with her student.

“One of the responsibilities of being an intellectual is sharing your knowledge with other people,” Chuang said. “The first thing that I want to share with my student is what sustainability is. I want to share my knowledge with him and teach him about all the different ways to approach sustainability.”

While researchers like Wen-Ching Chuang will be the mentors, the high school students will probably do some of the teaching.

“You always learn something new when you interact with new people,” Chuang said. “When you mentor a high school student, you can learn from them too. They view the world differently and have unique ways of approaching and solving problems.”

Kathryn Kyle, executive administrator for SCENE, recruited Chuang to participate in the program and praised her for her willingness to mentor a high school student. Chuang, who is working on receiving a PhD in Sustainability, moved to the United States from Taiwan to further her higher education. It was ASU President Michael Crow’s vision for sustainability sciences and the first ever School of Sustainability that brought Chuang to ASU.

“I applaud her for doing this because she is from Taiwan, so English is her second language. She has come very far in the school, and she will be a great mentor to a high school student,” Kyle said. “I am really happy that our students generally want to make the world a better place on both an individual and systemic basis.”

The program is beneficial for both the high school students and the mentors. Researchers who have participated in the program found a new interest in teaching, Kyle said.

“Past researchers who have been mentors have said that this program changed their attitudes toward teaching - it made them much more interested in teaching students,” she said. “After being a mentor, they not only have research and teaching experience on their resume, but mentoring experience as well, which is useful when applying for jobs.”

As the program continues to grow, more researchers are needed in order to match up every student with a mentor.

“We still really need mentors for this crop of students and we have a lot of great students participating,” Kyle said. “The kids in our program are the best of the best.”

SCENE’s research program has already proven to be a remarkable success: students in grades 10 through 12 grapple with original research questions while being mentored by top ASU scientists. The students learn what it takes to be a professional scientist, and they prepare to compete and win in state, national, and international science competitions.

Since 2000, SCENE students have won the Arizona Science and Engineering Fair’s Grand Prize every year except one, while also advancing to compete and win prizes at the International Science and Engineering Fair, the largest pre-college scientific research event in the world. In addition, SCENE students have won a prestigious Ricoh Sustainable Development Award every year since it was first offered.

The Southwest Center for Education and the Natural Environment (SCENE) was founded to promote learning about the environment through scientific discovery. SCENE links science expertise and resources at Arizona State University with pre-college students. The organization is a partnership between ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and members of the private sector.

The Global Institute of Sustainability is the hub of ASU’s sustainability initiatives. The institute advances research, education, and business practices for an urbanizing world. Its School of Sustainability, the first of its kind in the United States, offers transdisciplinary degree programs to create practical solutions for environmental, economic, and social challenges.

Written by Michael Marconi