When UT faculty members Karen Lloyd and Andrew Steen saw an opportunity to introduce a group of inner-city New Jersey high school students to science, they made it happen.
Lloyd, an assistant professor of microbiology, and her husband, Steen, an assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences, just completed their second summer program with students and teachers from Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, New Jersey.
They led the school group in conducting scientific research in the headwaters of the Delaware River at the Poconos Environmental Education Center in Pennsylvania. The students measured a key step in the breakdown of naturally dissolved carbon to the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
“These measurements have never been made before in inland water systems. We’re gaining a new view of how carbon is broken down by natural bacteria, and the fact that this research was done by high school students is impressive,” Steen said.
Lloyd said the unique cross-country collaboration was born when a family friend—Patrick Murray, a teacher at the school—told them that very few of the school’s students go on to a four-year college or university. He said opportunities to interact with university professors are rare for this underserved population.
“He said, ‘My students would just go nuts if a university professor talked to them.'”
Lloyd and Steen decided they could give Murray’s students that opportunity.
The UT scientists, along with Murray and fellow MXS High School teacher Nicholas Ferriero, developed a program called the Aquatic Biogeochemistry Team. Student participants come from Murray’s Advanced Placement calculus class.
After working with the students last summer, the UT faculty members maintained a relationship with the class throughout the year. Steen visited the New Jersey high school once and the faculty couple kept in touch with the students via Skype.
This summer Lloyd and Steen took the team back to the nature preserve to continue the research.
The project was funded by the Foundation for Newark’s Future—started with a $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010—and the National Science Foundation.
“The novelty of the Aquatic Biogeochemistry Team is that the students don’t just practice scientific exercises. This is the real deal. Students are making new scientific discoveries,” Lloyd said, adding that the students thrived in the research atmosphere.
“They were so dialed in to what we were saying. They wanted to glean all they could,” she said. “There was not a jaded soul among them.”
The MXS High School teachers said working alongside the UT professors could be a defining moment in their education.
“Students get the chance to experience for themselves how authentic research actually occurs. It demystifies the process for them. Now we would really like to include other students, perhaps from other high schools with similarly few opportunities,” Murray said.
Students said their experiences sparked new thoughts about their futures.
“I never knew how interesting science could be. Now I’m thinking of majoring in science,” said student Jessica Baskerville.
Student Zaire O’Neil agreed: “Experiences like this give us hope. It allows us to use the footsteps of Dr. Steen, Dr. Lloyd, and the nature preserve staff to see how bright and different our future can be.”
Jeff Rosalsky, executive director of the Poconos Environmental Education Center, said the student teams that use the nature preserve to learn about science get invaluable experience.
“Hands-on experiences are the best ways for students to learn about science—and learn to love science. The UT water enzyme research project … is real and relevant research. It provides the students with a glimpse of the work they might be doing if they choose a STEM career,” he said.
Steen and Lloyd said they are preparing to publish the students’ research. Meanwhile, they are already seeking funding for a similar trip next year.
C O N T A C T :
Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, firstname.lastname@example.org)