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Released July 10, 2003

By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG - Unlike most highs school students, Marlon Blake has had his eye on a career in science for some time. In fact, a job in meteorology has been on his radar since he was just 12-years old.

"I want to start out as a meteorologist," Blake said, pointing to a satellite photo showing the eye of a swirling hurricane. "Then I want to become a hurricane hunter."

Blake, a sophomore from Hattiesburg High, was one of 20 students from the Hattiesburg/Petal school districts participating in a science career fair at The University of Southern Mississippi on Friday. The students and five high school teachers are part of a six-week summer SCIENCE/Literacy program funded by the National Science Foundation. Upon completion of the course, students receive $1,000.

"Continuously declining enrollment of high school students in the science areas has become a critical national concern," said Dr. Dana Thames, chair of the Southern Miss Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

"The goals of this program are to provide hands-on, individualized and critical- thinking instruction to high school students in an effort to promote interest, encouragement, appreciation, and improved confidence toward the sciences."

Although the six-week course is research intensive, offering ample time for laboratory projects, it also focuses heavily on science literacy. Each morning, students begin the day by reading scientific articles and then applying those concepts in experiments throughout the day.

One example of that practical application was a laboratory experiment that required the students to make applesauce out of crackers and other common ingredients. "We added crème of tartar, cinnamon, water and some other stuff and heated it up. It wasn't perfect, but it tasted OK," said Jacob Kitchens, 18, a recent graduate of Petal High School who is considering a career in fire science.

Dr. Sarah Morgan, a polymer science professor at Southern Miss, said getting students involved in science early is important. "The premise is that if kids have hands-on experience in the labs, they'll get interested in careers in science and technology fields."

Socializing students in the laboratory settings and improving the pipeline that moves students from high school science classes to college are essential by-products of this program, Thames said. The program focuses mainly on chemistry and polymer science, but also incorporates physics, biology, math and other disciplines.

Nicole McWright, a biology and chemistry teacher from Hancock High School, participated in the program for the first time this summer, working with students in the morning and then doing research projects with Dr. Morgan in the afternoon. McWright said the course shows students how science affects almost every area of life. "Not a lot of students realize how things like polymer science apply to them, but this program really gets them excited about science," she said.

Top members of the Southern Miss administration, including President Dr. Shelby Thames and Gulf Coast Provost Dr. Jay Grimes, took time out Friday to attend the science career fair. Standing in front of backdrops with photos, figures and information, students presented their research on all aspects of their chosen scientific profession.

"This is good because it prepares them for their field and what they're going to encounter as a professional," said Grimes, whose own research background is in marine science. "If they go to a meeting, or share reports, talking about science is part of the whole process."

A polymer scientist himself, President Thames mingled with the students and talked to them enthusiastically about their science projects. "So many things have changed in science in the last 5-15 years," President Thames said. "Without contemporary programs like this, some students would never know what options are out there."

In its first summer, the program seemed to be achieving its primary goal: interesting students about science.

Eddie Spalding, who teaches plastics and polymer science applications courses at Petal, said during the course of the program, a couple of students approached him about changing their fall schedules to fit into his classes. "We're already reaping the benefits," he said.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM