High School Students Explore Chemistry at UWG

Monday, July 25, 2011

Amber bottles filled with diluted orange juice rested on the counter in front of Brittany Scruggs. The teenager was on a mission to find out the amount of anti-oxidants in the juice. But she learned something else: there is creativity in chemistry.

Scruggs, who is entering senior year at Temple High School, had been thinking of becoming an interior designer. But now, after spending time in a UWG lab, she was reconsidering. She’d rather take up science and math when she goes to college.

“Being in lab can be fun and it can be very creative,” she said. “You have to build up your own experiment and answer your own questions.”

Scruggs was one of two dozen teenagers and a handful of high school chemistry teachers who connected with the University of West Georgia this summer. The program was designed to spark an interest in chemistry in the youths and reinvigorate their teachers.

“I’ve learned that your measurements have to be precise and accurate,” Scruggs said. “And sometimes it’s going to take more than two trials, sometimes it’s going to take more than one experiment to answer your question.”

Dr. Sharmistha Basu-Dutt, UWG professor of chemistry, designed the hands-on experience for the teens and their teachers. They came from Temple, Villa Rica, East Coweta, Newnan and Fayette County high schools. Each of the teachers recommended three students.

She wanted to give all of them a sense of wonder about science.

“This is all inquiry-style learning,” she said. “We just want them to have fun. They are discovering. They are learning skills. And they are trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle.”

She floated among the three labs, pausing to answer questions. “We said get us those students who just need that little bit of encouragement, a little bit of nurturing that will allow them to continue. We want to recruit them as science majors.”

In one lab, students explored the amount of anti-oxidants in different types of food. Another group of teens worked on a series of metals to test how useful they could be in solar cell development. The teachers studied photosynthesis in an extract of chlorophyll from spinach leaves.

Beth Collinsworth, a teacher from East Coweta High School, reveled in the chance to use university equipment and to conduct an experiment several times. “The process is important,” Collinsworth said. “You can’t just expect a result and then automatically get the result.”

UWG chemistry majors gently guided the teenagers through the experiments and helped them record their data. “It’s amazing – the enthusiasm that they have to do research by themselves and their willingness to do the work,” said Ifeoma Okponyia, a UWG senior, as she slipped a slide into the “UV vis,” the Ultra-Violet/Visible Spectrophotometer, which measures light absorption in a sample.

The teenagers asked her about the experiment, but they also asked about college life. “I’m trying to be the best mentor that I can be, trying to make sure they are having fun and also doing the work,” she said.

Chey O’Brien, from East Coweta High School, worked on the metals experiment. “I haven’t really done many science fair projects myself. so it’s been a great experience,” he said.

Dr. Basu-Dutt called the program REACH, for Research Experience via Active Collaboration with High Schools. Logan Leslie, who graduated from UWG in 2007, helped develop the curriculum. The Department of Chemistry pitched in including: Dr. Spencer Slattery, the chairman; Dr. Victoria Geisler; Dr. Megumi Fujita; Dr. John Hansen; and Dr. Douglas Stuart.

The REACH project started with a $38,000 grant from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. Other money came from the Community Foundation of West Georgia’s Alice Huffard Richards Fund and the Georgia Power Foundation. UWG’s Student Research Assistant Program paid the chemistry majors, which also included Shastina Oglesbee, Bryan Hendren and Emmanuel Johnson, to assist in the labs. The high school teachers and their students received a stipend for participating.

“This generation is one that is seeking instant gratification all the time. Playing on all those computers,” Dr. Basu-Dutt said. “But I am really excited…. They are so hard at work on their experiments that those distractions are not taking away from lab time.”

The connection between UWG and the high schools will not end with the weeklong summer workshop. Next up for the teens are their science fair projects. They will have access to the UWG’s chemistry labs and professors as they develop the projects.

“We will help them build simple science fair projects into competitive, ambitious science fair projects by making all of these resources available,” Dr. Basu-Dutt said.