High school students studied plant research in the Central PA Research and Teaching Lab for Biofuels at Penn State Harrisburg
High school students studied plant research in the Central PA Research and Teaching Lab for Biofuels at Penn State Harrisburg
Image: Penn State

High school students learn cutting-edge STEM research on campus

Local high school students had a chance this summer to do the type of cutting edge research at Penn State Harrisburg that would be impossible in a high school classroom.

For some, it could be a life changing event leading them into one of the STEM disciplines that are becoming increasingly important in today's job market.

“We want to prepare them for the 21st century,” said Penn State Harrisburg’s Dr. Sairam Rudrabhatla, director of the Central Pennsylvania Research and Teaching Laboratory for Biofuels and associate professor of biology. “We want them to go back to school with renewed passion.”

The program is a joint effort by the Capital Area Institute for Mathematics and Science (CAIMS), Penn State Harrisburg, and the Penn State College of Medicine.  Students and teachers attend free of charge through a Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

This is the last year of the five-year, $1.5 million grant, which has also benefitted students from Middletown, Steelton-Highspire, and East Pennsboro high schools.

Participation in the program doesn't mean they will all become professors, doctors, or engineers, according to Dr. Robert Bonneau, Penn State College of Medicine professor of microbiology, immunology, and pediatrics.  Bonneau and the College of Medicine’s Dr. Michael Chorney were co-principal investigators on the NIH-funded grant that provided financial support for the program, which Bonneau and CAIMS director Dr. Judith Witmer coordinated.

“The local mechanic needs to know how to use the computers in the car,” Bonneau said. “These skills are applicable across many jobs and life experiences.”

STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering, and math - “extend to all parts of the work force,” he explained.

The 19 students who participated in this year’s programs will be seniors this fall at Susquehanna Township High School. Most of them spent a week last summer at an environmental center run by Juniata College at Raystown Lake.

This year they spent a week living in the dorms at Penn State Harrisburg while working in the college's state-of-the-art biofuels lab, as well as spending a day at the College of Medicine.

The type of research in which these students participated is impressive.

For instance, the students had the opportunity to see how soybean plants are used to express vaccines against avian flu virus. They were also involved in extracting proteins from the soybean plants.

They also experimented with developing tomatoes containing larger amounts of the cancer-fighting antioxidant lycopene.

Susquehanna student Monica Feeley said she was extremely grateful for the opportunity to participate. She was considering becoming either a geneticist or a medical doctor, but discovered this summer, to her surprise, that she thinks she may want to become a surgeon.

Student Thomas McLamb said participating gave him “a feel for something I may not have been interested in before.”

McLamb said he plays a lot of video games and is also interested in graphic arts. He discovered those skills can translate into scientific careers.

At the Penn State Hershey Medical Center, he used a type of “protein folding game,” he said, “kind of like a Rubik's Cube for proteins,” and found he was good at it.

He also discovered he likes sequencing DNA. “It's a lot more interesting than I thought,” he said.

Bonneau said he was impressed with how many students wanted to be in the program. The 19 students were chosen from among 33 applicants based on their interest in science and an essay. He said Penn State plans to maintain a relationship with them, following up on some of the long term experiments they started while on campus.

Rudrabhatla said the students were bright and very curious, asking a lot of questions.

“We selected them for a good fit, and they have exceeded our expectations,” he added.

Four of their high school teachers accompanied the students for the week, learning techniques they could bring back to their classrooms. The experience gave them a chance to interact with their students in a more informal, more “hands-on” way than they can during the school year.

Rob McDonald, a biology and environmental science teacher at Susquehanna Township High School, said it gave him an opportunity to “learn things more cutting edge than when I was in college.”

“The students are getting an experience you don't get until almost graduate level courses,” he said. “It invigorates them. It shows how cool science can be.”

“Plus, [careers in] the STEM disciplines pay better,” he added.