October 2011

Fostering diversity in science and public science literacy


Summer Focus

Abby Buchwalter (second from left), a Ph.D. student in cell biology and physiology, works with students at Vashon High School on an experiment about reduction-oxidation reactions. The students used heat and the sulfur in hardboiled eggs to tarnish pieces of silver and copper and then used hot water, baking soda and aluminum foil to remove the tarnish. The Vashon students visited the Washington University School of Medicine for Women in Science Day, sponsored by the Young Scientist Program and the Association for Women in Science.

YSP uses several unique initiatives to augment middle- and high-school science curricula and attract young people to scientific careers. One of them is the Summer Focus program, in which students from local high schools conduct independent research at Washington University for eight weeks.

Each student summarizes his or her discoveries in a formal research paper and presents his or her findings at a symposium at the summer’s end. He or she participates in a scientific writing course, attends career presentations by professional scientists, takes part in a journal club and is coached in making presentations.

Each student has both a laboratory mentor, who guides the student through an independent research project, and a tutor, who helps reinforce basic biological concepts. Bartlett says he remembers meeting with his tutor to build on what he had learned in freshman biology so that he could understand the genetics research he was doing in the lab.

 Students at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School participate in an exercise in natural selection during a visit to the Washington University School of Medicine. The students used forks, chopsticks and spoons to pick up different sizes of beans to simulate trait variation and differential survival within a population of birds. Students competed against one another for food over multiple rounds (generations) and observed how natural selection can alter the frequency of different traits over time within a population. The activities were organized by the Young Scientist Program’s evolution/genetics/genomics teaching team.


“Learning a few functional lab skills to get going right away while also filling in the background information as the summer progresses is a pivotal aspect of keeping students productive and encouraged,” he says. “Focus too heavily on skills, and we become mere technicians. Focus too much on background, and we’d be too overwhelmed to get anything accomplished. YSP has found the right balance.”

So far, more than 230 high-school students have participated in the Summer Focus program. Most have attended college, and many have majored in science, often with scholarship support, and have gone on to pursue advanced degrees in science and medicine.

Lesley Rankin, a 2008 Summer Focus student who attended Gateway High School, says she obtained laboratory, writing, reading and career skills from the experience.

“All of the sessions and lab research incorporated into the entire summer were the building blocks for my decision to continue a career in science,” she says. Rankin explains that before participating, she was deciding between a career in music or science, and the program helped her decide on science.

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