Active Learning Through Mentoring

University Faculty and Undergraduates Collaborate on Research with Paterson High School Students
University student Jennifer Fiorelli (left) works with East Side High School student Shelsy Taveras

By Mary Beth Zeman

On a hot August morning, student researchers John Rankin and Toniann Robinson are hard at work in a sunlit laboratory space in the University’s spacious new Science Hall West.

Rankin, a William Paterson senior majoring in biology and secondary education, and Robinson, a rising senior at John F. Kennedy (J.F.K.) High School in Paterson, are painstakingly mounting specimens from their research—tiny ants barely a centimeter long—on the heads of straight pins for display.

For the past several weeks, the pair, neither of whom has conducted independent research before, have been working one-on-one with Stephen Vail, a professor of biology who studies the ecology of ants, on a project seeking to determine how a certain species of ants adapts to variations in temperature. The study required trips to High Point, Sandy Hook, and locations on campus to collect ants; identifying those ants in the lab, using a very high-powered microscope; performing various experiments; and, in the end, “pinning” those specimens for a final presentation about their findings.

It has been an eye-opening, and successful, experience for the trio. Robinson, hoping to major in science in college, was surprised to work with ants as a research subject. “I never thought about ants before,” she says with a smile. “Now, I’m looking for them everywhere! This project has really motivated me and is a starting point for what I will do in college.”

Rankin, who hopes to teach high school science, says the project solidified his career path. And for Vail, who regularly supervises student researchers in his lab, it’s been a gratifying experience. “For me, the whole focus has been on developing their relationship,” he says. “They have worked very independently and done very good work.”

The trio’s collaboration is one of eight such projects taking place throughout Science Hall West as part of the William Paterson University Roche Program for Summer Research. Funded by a grant from the Roche Foundation, the intense lab-based program pairs a Paterson high school student with a University science faculty member conducting research and a William Paterson undergraduate student mentor majoring in math or science. The goal: to encourage urban high school students to consider careers in the sciences while also supporting undergraduate students as they gain experience in lab research.

“This is the kind of experience that first got me interested in science,” says Jamie Weiss, a University assistant professor of biology who serves as coordinator of the program. She admits to begging for a microscope at age nine, and later obtained her first research position in a lab at Rutgers University as a sophomore.

A graduate of Paterson’s J.F.K. High School herself, Weiss understands the need to provide high school students, especially those in urban areas, with a hands-on learning opportunity in the sciences. “Overall, there is a shortage of students pursuing careers in scientific research and this drops even lower with minority students,” she says.

Students participating in the program spend four days a week working in the lab from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; each receives a stipend. Forty-two Paterson students applied for positions, and were selected based on academic achievement, particularly in the sciences, an essay outlining their career aspirations, and a letter of recommendation from one of their teachers.

The need to provide enhanced opportunities in science and math in the United States is well documented. The 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—which measured the knowledge of U.S. students in physical, life, and earth and space sciences across 318,000 students in grades four, eight, and twelve—found that less than one-third of students assessed have a solid grasp of science. Proficiency decreases from grade four to grade twelve, and lower-income students are outperformed by other students across all three grades.

The key, educators say, is increasing active learning opportunities in the sciences, both at the K-12 level and in undergraduate education. In addition, specifically involving students in laboratory research experiences, and using mentoring techniques, are critical methods for encouraging students to pursue an interest in science and retaining them in undergraduate science programs.

Hands-on learning is definitely a hallmark of the summer program. In Weiss’s lab, John Ruiz, a recent graduate of J.F.K. High School, is involved with growing bacteria containing plasmid DNA in petri dishes. Under the watchful guidance of biology major Michael Gonzalez, Ruiz has also learned the practices of a research lab. “Mike taught me about sterile techniques, how to dilute a solution, all the basics, which is important,” he says. Every Wednesday, the students joined with Weiss for a lab meeting to discuss progress on their individual research tasks.

“This has introduced me to a whole new world,” Ruiz adds. “I had heard about research but I had no idea what that meant.” Interested in economics and science, he hopes to form a science-based company after college.

For the University’s undergraduate students, participating in a lab-based research experience can be critical. According to the 2010 report Undergraduate Research in the Sciences, recent studies have demonstrated that such experiences increase students’ self-confidence and communication abilities and their understanding of scientific concepts, provide enhanced preparation for science careers and graduate school, and help clarify career goals.

The University has long been focused on recruiting and preparing students for employment in science and math occupations, which are also a key area of the economy experiencing job growth, says Sandra DeYoung, dean of William Paterson’s College of Science and Health. “One of the ways we have pursued this is through undergraduate research experiences,” she explains. “Science and math students have numerous opportunities to be mentored by faculty and upper-class students in science lab research and in mathematics research.”

For DeYoung, offering a similar opportunity to high school students was a natural fit. “Since we have long employed a mentoring model among our undergraduate students, and have a longstanding relationship with the Paterson Public Schools, we were excited to reach out to Paterson to invite high school juniors and seniors to participate in this summer program.”

The Roche program projects focused on a wide range of subject matter in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and ecology. Keith Malinak, a junior majoring in biology, and Tamanna Murshed, a rising senior at J.F.K. High School, worked with mathematics professor Jyoti Champernerkar on applying a commonly used equation to questions of genetics. Chemistry professor David Snyder, who researches the evolution of digestive proteins, which has implications in combating drug resistance, mentored Meriem Karimi, a senior majoring in biotechnology, and Shimanna Uddin, also a rising J.F.K. High School senior. And biology senior Nathaniel Agosto and Eastside High School student Renee Waldron were out in the field, sampling water at Oldham Pond in North Haledon and assessing tree distribution and abundance in High Mountain Preserve adjacent to the William Paterson campus.

Jennifer Fiorelli, a senior majoring in biotechnology, worked with biology professor J.W. Lee to supervise Eastside High School student Shelsy Taveras on a project isolating and growing insulin-producing pancreatic cells. “Working with Shelsy made me verbalize the lab techniques to explain them to her, which meant I had to really understand the project,” she says. “I think I’ve been better in the lab with her watching me.”

In another Science Hall West lab, Israel Mejia, a student at Rosa Parks High School, and Saadia Chaudhry, a University biology major, used a laser to gather data about various objects. “Saadia has been excellent in directing Israel,” says their faculty mentor, Kevin Martus, a professor of physics. “It has been exciting to entice a high school student to perhaps pursue science in college.”

Nearby in the University’s mouse lab, under the supervision of biology professor Robert Benno, biology major Tomiko Rendon and Panther Academy junior Zachary Hall worked with an autistic strain of mice trying to determine if stress causes them to eat more.

Rendon, who originally wanted to be a veterinarian, now hopes to pursue a career in animal research. “I enjoy the challenges of research, of having a question and trying to figure out how to answer it.”

“I did not expect to work with mice, but after half a day I was hooked,” Hall says. “This is a once- in-a-lifetime experience—when else does a high school student get to work in a lab like this?”