October 2010

Fostering a New Generation of Scientists


In a special, online-only article, Carol Bender, director of the undergraduate biology research program and related programs at the University of Arizona, writes about a program that gives high school students the experience to make informed decisions about whether to pursue a STEM major in college. 


Online Education1
Robert Lopez, now a senior at San Miguel High School, studies nematodes in Patricia Stock’s laboratory in the department of entomology at the University of Arizona.

Where will future scientists come from? By all accounts it takes at least ten years to educate and train a scientist. Working backwards, it is clear that preparation needs to start much earlier than college. Scientists at the University of Arizona in conjunction with faculty and students at San Miguel Catholic High School in Tucson, Arizona, are working together to ensure that high school students have the experience to make informed decisions about whether to pursue a STEM major in college. 

San Miguel High School opened its doors in 2004. It is a unique school that offers a college prep curriculum in a neighborhood where 50 percent of the adult residents do not have a high school education and 42 percent earn less than $25,000 per year. Students at the school earn 60 percent of their tuition by working one day a week in an internship at an area business or institution that pays the school for the students’ time. This model gives students experience in the workplace and help them establish relationships with mentors. It is through this program that San Miguel students began working with UA research groups, earning their tuition through their involvement in laboratory research. 

Over the past five years, 27 San Miguel students have completed internships in the sciences at UA. Thirteen of these worked in individual faculty research groups through the Undergraduate Biology Research Program, another 13 worked in the UA Human Origins Genotyping Laboratory, and one student worked both through UBRP and HOGL. All were involved in investigating questions that required them to learn techniques used in modern science. 

This arrangement has been beneficial both to the students and to their research groups. According to Patricia Stock, associate professor of entomology, who is the mentor of a San Miguel student named Robert Lopez, “Robert is a great student! He is avid to learn and to help others. He is self-motivated and I enjoy having Robert in the lab very much!” Wulfila Gronenburg, professor of neurobiology who mentored Stephanie Montoya, adds, “It’s great to have some help in the lab and get high school students interested in science!”

The students respond enthusiastically. Robert Lopez, who has worked in the Stock lab for a year, notes “This summer I used all the knowledge I collected in the lab over the past academic year and applied it to my project on ant nematode relationships. I learned more than I really planned for and was able to complete my own project.”

To train their San Miguel students in molecular biology techniques, the HOGL laboratory staff created a multi-day activity dubbed “America’s Next Top Taxonomist.” The activity requires students to go through a series of steps to identify the specie from which a specific sample of tissue, blood or saliva was taken. The specimens range from desert tortoises to big horn sheep.

For more information

• Click here to learn more about San Miguel Catholic High School.
• Click here to learn more about the Undergraduate Biology Research Program at UA.
• Click here to learn more about the Human Origins Genotyping Laboratory at UA.

Because presenting experimental results is part of the scientific process, San Miguel students often present posters of their work at the Annual UBRP Conference and a few have even contributed to scientific publications.

UA hopes to continue working with San Miguel students for years to come. The collaborations between San Miguel and the university scientists have been very successful, and we truly believe that through this program, we are helping to foster a future generations of scientists. 

Carol Bender (bender@email.arizona.edu) is the director of the undergraduate biology research program and related programs at the University of Arizona.

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