Classrooms: MacDuffie students ‘Aspire’ for great science through program at UMass

  • The MacDuffie School students Jola Oke, 16, of Ibadan, Nigeria, left, Anubhav Khanna, 17, of Singapore, and Vincent Pedersen, 16, of Copenhagen, Denmark, explore properties of polymers earlier this month as part of ASPIRE, a STEM research opportunity, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The MacDuffie School students Jola Oke, 16, of Ibadan, Nigeria, left, Anubhav Khanna, 17, of Singapore, and Vincent Pedersen, 16, of Copenhagen, Denmark, explore properties of polymers earlier this month as part of ASPIRE, a STEM research opportunity, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The MacDuffie School student Jola Oke, 16, of Ibadan, Nigeria, explores properties of polymers earlier this month as part of ASPIRE, a STEM research opportunity, at University of Massachusetts Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The MacDuffie School student Carrie Lu, 16, of Xiamen, China, right, and Amherst Regional High School student Malcolm Blinder discuss the mechanical properties of materials earlier this month as part of ASPIRE, a STEM research opportunity, at University of Massachusetts Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The MacDuffie School students Anubhav Khanna, 17, of Singapore, left, Jola Oke, 16, of Ibadan, Nigeria, and Vincent Pedersen, 16, of Copenhagen, Denmark, explore properties of polymers earlier this month as part of ASPIRE, a STEM research opportunity, at University of Massachusetts Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The MacDuffie School student Carrie Lu, 16, of Xiamen, China, left, works with Amherst Regional student Malcolm Blinder to understand the mechanical properties of materials earlier this month as part of ASPIRE, a STEM research opportunity, at University of Massachusetts Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Jared Harris, graduate student mentor at UMass Amherst, left, works with The MacDuffie School students Jola Oke, 16, of Ibadan, Nigeria, left, Anubhav Khanna, 17, of Singapore, and Vincent Pedersen, 16, of Copenhagen, Denmark, while they explore properties of polymers earlier this month as part of ASPIRE, a STEM research opportunity, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

@HughesMorgan_
Published: 2/14/2017 11:28:54 PM

AMHERST — In her high school science classes at the MacDuffie School so far, sophomore Carrie Lu has barely been able to get her hands dirty with any significant experiments – until this winter.

For five Saturdays over the last few weeks, Lu stepped out of the classroom and into the lab, diving in head-first beside graduate student researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Lu,  along with the three other students selected from MacDuffie’s Granby campus to participate in “A Student-led Program In Research and Education,” or ASPIRE,  got to try out chemistry, physics and engineering in a five-week program held at the Silvio O. Conte National Center for Polymer Research on UMass’ flagship campus.

“We get to do professional stuff in a lab that we couldn’t do in our high school lab,” said MacDuffie School junior Vincent Pederson. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun.”

The four MacDuffie students, along with roughly 20 other high school students from around the area, performed hands-on experiments in the lab with the UMass graduate students.

“They’re basically doing a lot of the stuff we do on a daily basis,” said UMass graduate student ASPIRE leader Sarah Ward.

Participants learned about, synthesized and optimized the use of polymers, which are long chains of similar molecules bonded together.

Jola Oke, a junior at MacDuffie, applied for the program because he is interested in creating a technology startup back home in Africa. Oke, like many other ASPIRE participants, did not even know what a polymer was until he began the program. The more he learned, however, the more he realized he could apply what he learned to his future startup.

“I see now how polymers are really involved in our lives,” Oke said. “I came here not really knowing what they are but now I see how polymers can really make our lives easier and better.”

Oke and junior MacDuffie student Anu Khanna explained that polymers are used for a number of things people use in their everyday lives, from making 3-D printing cleaner and safer to optimizing cost and efficiency of solar panels.

Lu explained that despite not having the same chemistry classes under her belt as some of the other participants, the ASPIRE leaders answered questions and explained polymers in a way all the participants could understand.

“The first day was a little bit weird because I didn’t understand what they were talking about,” Lu said. “But they explain everything so I was able to catch up.”

The MacDuffie students were selected after a rigorous application process based on their application, academic standing, participation in extracurricular activities, and a teacher letter of recommendation.

Before ASPIRE, Lu already knew she wanted to go to college to study the sciences. For her, one of the best things about ASPIRE was getting to see what it’s really like to be a graduate student researcher.

“I really want to major in chemistry and computer science, and this really made me stand towards that more than ever,” Lu said. “It’s great being around a lot of graduate students and getting to know what’s its like to be a graduate student.”

This year was Ward’s second at ASPIRE. She described the high school students as motivated, inquisitive and creative.

“They have a lot of new ideas they can bring to the table, so it’s always fun to have discussions with them,” Ward said. “They’re always asking about new ways of doing something that we maybe haven’t thought of before.”

When the time came to return to the classroom, ASPIRE students took with them a solid understanding of a complicated field of science and a new set of skills for the laboratory.

Khanna and Oke’s chemistry teacher Kristen Styspeck said she saw a measurable improvement in their confidence during labs.

“I’ve noticed they are much more comfortable getting started,” said Styspeck, who helped coordinate the application process. “They feel great about the program, and they’re so excited about what they had learned.”

In addition to the hands-on research experience, the program allowed the students to make interpersonal connections at the university, and sets them apart from others as they approach the college application process, Styspeck said.

Looking towards high school graduation, these MacDuffie students already have goals locked and loaded; prestigious universities, research opportunities and creating their own businesses.

As far as they can see, they’ll take what they learned at ASPIRE with them on their future journeys.

Morgan Hughes can be reached at mahughes@umass.edu.




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