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Summer Science Institute brings math, science to life for high school students


Summer Science Institute

Biological Sciences doctoral student Chris Hamilton shows participants in the Summer Science Institute a tarantula during a behind-the-scenes tour of Auburn's Museum of Natural History.

Some area high school students are getting an opportunity to explore cutting-edge research topics in biology, chemistry, geology, physics and mathematics through the Summer Science Institute at Auburn University.

The College of Sciences and Mathematics' academically competitive enrichment program is for rising 11th and 12th grade students who demonstrate a heightened interest in a career in the sciences or mathematics. Physics professor Allen Landers, Howard Carr Professor of Outreach and faculty director of the institute, conceived the program with a vision toward exciting young minds about science.

"My initial idea was to do something solely in the physics department, but I recognized right away that COSAM's Department of Outreach provides an outstanding infrastructure that could be utilized to create a more diverse program," said Landers. "These students are the future of science in terms of research and science education, so we want to get them excited about any and all aspects of science and math."

As director, Landers is responsible for working with Mary Lou Ewald, COSAM's director of outreach, to coordinate all activities during the one-week program, determine the schedule, recruit faculty participants, and provide guidance for creating modules that will be effective in inspiring young scientific minds.

"These students are the future of science in terms of research and science education..."

— Allen Landers

The 2013 Summer Science Institute took place in June, and 26 students from Alabama and Georgia spent the week on campus working with COSAM faculty and staff in a series of hands-on and interactive workshops including activities from each of the five COSAM departments. Participating faculty included: Anne Gorden, John Gorden, and Konrad Patkowski from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Dean Hoffman and Chris Rodger from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics; Jason Bond, Wendy Hood, Debbie Folkerts, and Haruka Wada from the Department of Biological Sciences; Willis Hames from the Department of Geology and Geography; and Mike Fogle, Uwe Konopka, David Maurer, and Allen Landers from the Department of Physics.

"Because we had so many participating faculty, we really got to showcase how enthusiastic we are about engaging young people in science and mathematics. We try to create an exploratory atmosphere where we excite the students about science as a career.  Students get to experience the broad diversity of the college, which ranged widely from both field and lab work in biology, to synthesis and computer modeling of molecules in chemistry, to discrete and recreational mathematics. We also engage the students in a number of supplemental activities including a herpetology hunt and an astronomy night," said Landers.

Because the Summer Science Institute hosts a limited number of participants, Landers said there is an additional advantage for both the students and faculty during the program.

"The students have an opportunity to ask open-ended questions, so they are able to get a lot out of each session since we are experts in our respective fields. Spontaneous discussions tend to be more effective because they are in response to student questions and the students are engaged from the start. There is something very special about the intimacy and one-on-one time the students get with the faculty," said Landers. "As scientists we get to sometimes recognize natural phenomenon for the very first time, and getting to share that with high school kids is a very cool, deep experience. The whole thing is extremely gratifying."

Summer Science Institute

Physics professor Mike Fogle provides participants in the Summer Science Institute with a demonstration of how the particle accelerator works as they conduct an X-Ray analysis using particles from the accelerator.

The application process for the program is rigorous, and students are evaluated based on intellectual merit, letters of recommendation from teachers or administrators at the prospective candidate's school, a personal statement as to why the student wants to participate, volunteerism, work experiences, participation in extracurricular activities, and general enthusiasm for science and/or mathematics.

Abigail Blankenship, a 17-year-old student at St. Paul's Episcopal School in Mobile, Ala., was selected to participate in this year's program, and said she applied because she has a strong interest in the sciences and mathematics, especially chemistry and physics. As a result, she was taken off guard by how much of an impact the courses in biological sciences had on her.

"I am not a fan of biology, and it really, really surprised me how much I gained a new respect for the field this week because it was really fascinating. I also recognize that it is not something I would like to do; I do not want to go trekking through the woods collecting spiders, but I have a newfound respect for people who find that fascinating," explained Blankenship. "It was a good experience for me since I am such a chemistry-physics person, to have gotten so much out of the biology experience as well. I would definitely recommend this program to pretty much any high school student who is interested in math and science, and even some who are not really sure, because I learned so much about myself and what I am interested in. I learned a lot about what is out there and what's available to study. It was really, really, really fascinating to learn so much about science and math."

Catherine Johnson, a rising high school senior at Forsyth Central High School in Cumming, Ga., was among the first class of students to participate in the institute in 2012, and she wrote a letter to Landers expressing similar sentiments about her experience:

"…Dr. Landers, your science institute was literally the most amazing adventure that I have ever experienced. I made so many new friends who enjoyed learning, science, and hard-working as much as I did. I learned from the most talented professors who were in love with what they taught each day. I experienced some of the most crazy adventures that got me either soaking wet and muddy, hot and sweaty, or gave me the feeling that I was going to be eaten alive by the forests, like on the herpetology hunt. I learned some of the neatest things, like how to recycle aluminum, the difference between bioluminescence and fluorescence, how to work well with and encourage your team, how to look for fireflies, how to solve terribly hard enigmas, how to figure out binary code, and so much more. When I left Auburn University, all I could feel was sadness for days, because I no longer had those thoughtful professors, brilliant friends, or the university itself. However, I had obtained so much knowledge that I have kept with me since then…Thank you, Dr. Landers, as well as Ms. Mary Lou Ewald, and thank you to everyone who put forth the effort to teach and take care of us students while we were staying at Auburn. I had never considered Auburn University as a college that I wanted to attend before, but now I feel drawn to make it my first application. Thank you so much."

Summer Science Institute

Chemistry professor John Gorden instructs Summer Science Institute participants during a chemistry lab.

There is no fee for participation in the Summer Science Institute, and funding from the program comes from a variety of sources including the Office of the Vice President for University Outreach, the National Science Foundation, Army ROTC, the Society of Women in Sciences and Mathematics, and COSAM.

"The program is free, and that is critical. It has to be free because there will be that one student who would not go if he or she has to pay for it, and that's probably the one student for whom it means the most. And that's why the numbers are small and we only have two-dozen students. This program is not about reaching masses of students. This is different. It's about reaching a special niche," said Landers. "And what really makes the program a success is the volunteer time we receive from faculty, and the donation and use of laboratory space from departments in COSAM."

COSAM's Department of Outreach will begin accepting applications for the 2014 Summer Science Institute in November 2013. For more information, visit the Summer Science Institute website at

— By Candis Birchfield, College of Sciences and Mathematics

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Last Updated: Aug. 5, 2013

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