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Immersing youth in math and science research

August 3, 2011 - Aditya Shankar from Westford Academy explains his poster at the STEM Young Scholars Program poster session, Curry Student Center Ballroom PHOTO: Christopher Huang / Northeastern University

Last Wednesday, a crowd of Northeastern faculty, graduate students and friends gathered to hear Aditya Shankar explain his innovative research involving voltammetry, electrochemically reactive particles and pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria.

In September, Shankar will be a high-school senior at Westford Academy.

For six weeks this summer, Shankar worked in assistant professor Edgar Goluch’s chemical-engineering lab as a participant in Northeastern’s Young Scholars Program.

The long-running program places 26 of the brightest Boston-area high-school students in paid research positions in university labs. The effort not only increases the depth of students’ scientific knowledge, it gives them a chance to learn about potential career paths as they collaborate with leading faculty to explore an array of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) areas.

“We learned a lot of new concepts, but, most important, we learned what the research process actually entails,” Shankar explained. “We were taught how precise things have to be. In high school, if your measurements are off by a few milliliters it won’t really change the results of an experiment. But in a real lab, if you miss one drop it can be a really big deal.”

Mansoor Amiji, chair of pharmaceutical sciences and co-director of Northeastern’s Nanomedicine Education and Research Consortium, has two Young Scholars in his lab.

“It is critical that we develop and nurture scientific inquiry at an early age,” Amiji said. “There is a deficiency of math and science—especially laboratory-based experiences—in our high schools. Hands-on experience and research opportunities provide the best way to stimulate young minds to choose scientific educational pathways. It is also a great way to recruit talented high-school students to come to Northeastern for their college education.”

Often, the Young Scholars lab teams also include K–12 educators and community-college faculty, thanks to the Research Experiences for Teachers program. Both efforts are coordinated by Claire Duggan of Northeastern’s Center for STEM Education, and funded by the Linde Family Foundation and other government and corporate funders.

Jenny Makovina, who is about to enter her senior year at Boston Latin School, worked in Amiji’s pharmacology lab. “All the specific techniques, like how to culture cells and take microscopy images, I would’ve never learned in a high-school lab,” she says. “The most valuable thing for me has been going through the research process from start to finish, from hypothesis to poster presentation.”

Written by Lauren Horn