Originally published July 2, 2015
By Daniel Perez
UTEP News Service
While most high school students are finding different ways to amuse themselves this summer, a few dozen seniors-to-be are honing their science skills on research projects with real-world implications at The University of Texas at El Paso.
Thirty-six students from Andress, Chapin and Irvin high schools in the El Paso Independent School District are part of UTEP’s Work With a Scientist Program (WWASP) that encourages students to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in college.
The students balance their lab work with lectures and active discussions with UTEP faculty and their research assistants.
Participants recently reached a milestone when they presented their research proposals to a panel of judges and about 100 family members and friends June 20. This was their chance to share how much they have learned since their cohort started in January, said Pei-Ling Hsu, Ph.D., assistant professor of science education and the program’s principal investigator.
“It’s an opportunity for them to show us their ideas, which I found original and creative,” said Hsu, who also complimented the students for their perfect attendance thus far, which she added, spoke to their commitment. “This serves as a moment that sets their path for this summer and beyond.”
The students, many dressed in their Sunday best, took turns in front of their trifold science boards discussing their planned projects that involved research into various topics such as cancer treatment, cosmetics, air quality and neuroscience.
Among the judges was Rachid Skouta, Ph.D., research assistant professor of biological sciences, who is among the four UTEP faculty members assisting with this year’s WWASP cohort. He expressed pride in the quality of the students and their work during a short break from judging.
Skouta said his nine students are working on new molecules that can lead to disease-fighting medicines. A researcher for 15 years, he said the experience has taught him to stay open-minded because the students give him many fresh perspectives.
“Our goal is to enhance their scientific thinking,” Skouta said as a nearby student discussed his planned cancer research with another judge. “We’ve given the students the freedom to be creative and this has motivated them. We’re opening doors for (the students). We provide the car and they provide the direction.”
Andress student Faith Goodwin was among the presenters. Her team decided to study the effects of bacteria in cosmetics on skin. Goodwin, who hopes to become a nurse anesthetist, praised the program because it enhanced her understanding of the scientific process.
“And it was fun,” she said with a broad smile.
On the other side of the room, Ray Pages waited for his turn to discuss his group’s project on the most efficient way to stop the migration of cancer cells to the brain. The Irvin student said the WWASP meshed with his lifelong interest in science, especially with how the body works.
Goodwin, Pages and their peers endured an intense selection process that included essays and interviews to join the $1.5 million program funded by the National Science Foundation. The WWASP studies the impact of pairing UTEP STEM researchers with high school juniors and then assessing the students’ academic performance.
A study of the first cohort from 2013-14 showed student participants earned higher GPAs, gained greater confidence from research discussions and enhanced their confidence to attend college. Participants said they appreciated the access to real research labs with state-of-the art equipment.
This year’s students have come to campus every other Saturday since January 2015, and began a six-week internship June 15. They are working with Skouta; Jacen Moore, Ph.D., assistant professor of clinical lab science; Charlotte Vines, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences; and Karine Fenelon, Ph.D., assistant professor in neuroscience. Moore and Vines also participated in the judging. The students will make their final presentations July 25.
During her remarks at the June 20 presentations, Andress principal Lynn Gill thanked the students for their diligence and their families for their support. She told students their participation eventually would help them to better serve society.
In a moment that balanced candor and comedy, Gill told the audience that while many of those in the room – herself included – would not understand the scientific concepts being presented, all would appreciate the passion by which they were delivered.
U.S. Army retiree Carlos Andujar admitted he did not comprehend many of the proposals, even his son’s, but that did not stop him from supporting his son, Byron Andujar of Andress High School, who is on the same team as Pages. He said he often finds his son hunched over books late into the night and wonders where he finds the energy.
“This is what education is all about with all their passion and vision,” said the elder Andujar as he observed the young researchers while standing near Starbucks. “I’m happy with what (my son) is doing.”