Just about every Friday during their senior year at North Star Academy College Preparatory High School in Newark, Willma Arias de la Rosa, Xaymara Rivera and Desiree Koontz got to skip school.
Instead, they hopped aboard an early New Jersey Transit train to Princeton Junction, where they hailed an Uber to the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, the world-class fusion energy research laboratory on the grounds of Princeton University.
Willma and Xaymara headed to a basement lab with magnets so strong they could literally change the direction of your blood. There, they worked alongside engineer Charles Gentile and physicist Chris Tully on a project designed to measure neutrinos – tinier than microscopic particles – to bolster the Big Bang Theory.
Desiree worked alongside plasma physicist Arturo Dominguez in PPPL’s Planeterrella Lab, which allows scientists to study astronomical objects in a laboratory setting.
While the three high school students traveled the farthest, they were not alone in pursuing scientific research at New Jersey universities. In total, 65 North Star seniors worked in research laboratories at Princeton, Seton Hall University, Rutgers-Newark and New Jersey Institute of Technology. The students presented their research findings during an assembly in the school gymnasium recently.
The effort to expose high school students to scientific research is the brainchild of Michael Mann, the head of public charter high school that was recently named by U.S. News & World Report as one of New Jersey’s top high schools.
Mann said he was deeply disturbed that so few of North Star’s graduates pursued science, technology, engineering and math majors when they got to college.
“For our graduating classes of 2004 to 2012, 96 percent went to four-year colleges, but only 6 percent ended up majoring in STEM,” Mann said. “We thought that was a shockingly low percentage and it was because we were failing to do something to prepare the students.”
North Star Academy is part of the Uncommon Schools network, serving over 4,000 K-12 students in Newark in 11 campuses. About 94 percent of its students are African American or Hispanic, and 87 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Nearly all of its graduating seniors were accepted to 4-year colleges last year.
A few years ago, Mann began visiting other high-performing high schools, such as the Denver School of Science and Technology in Colorado and Noble Street College Prep in Chicago.
“We saw that the ones that had the better percentage of graduates going into STEM had some sort of connection to universities or research institutions,” Mann said.
So he began looking for university partners nearby, making a connection with Seton Hall University.
Janine Buckner, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Seton Hall, said Mann’s idea of having high school students work alongside faculty fit with the university’s mission.
“It’s consistent with our mission, which includes social justice and reaching our community,” Buckner said. “We are right on the other side of Newark. It’s just natural for us to extend ourselves into the community.”
The program with Seton Hall started in the fall of 2013 with ten professors, allowing Mann to put his hypothesis to the test. Of the seniors that graduated in 2014, 58 percent decided to pursue a STEM major in college.
“It subsequently went down to the mid 30s after their first year in college because it was so rigorous,” Mann said. “Once they saw the difficulty of courses, some of them switched majors, but it was still higher than our historically ridiculously low 6 percent.”
Mann decided to expand the program, enlisting Rutgers, NJIT and the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab.
Shannon Swilley Greco, a science education program leader at PPPL, said the laboratory has had an internship program for high school students for 30 years, but never had students from Newark. Most of the students come from surrounding communities of West Windsor, Plainsboro and Princeton. She said Mann made the case that the internship program should be accessible to students from across the state, especially those from impoverished cities.
Greco said the research projects the students are working on at PPPL are not dumbed down for high school students.
“These students are jumping into real ongoing research projects funded by the Department of Energy,” Greco said.
Tracy Tran, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Rutgers-Newark, said there was a learning curve for her two North Star students, Jessica Bakare and Nathalie Leonardo. Tran’s research focuses on neural development, which uses a fundamental research technique called polymerase chain reaction that is common to all fields of molecular biology.
“It’s a process,” Tran said. “In the beginning they are learning. They’ve never been in a real academic research lab. It’s very different from a classroom laboratory. I have a graduate student in my lab who worked really closely with them so they are closely monitored and well trained. They learned by shadowing my graduate student.”
Nathalie, who is planning to attend Villanova University in the fall, said she plans to pursue a degree in computer science, but would like to minor in neurology.
“It was really fun getting exposure to what a lab is actually like,” Nathalie said. “It’s a completely different environment. When we have labs in school we use plastic pipettes that are disposable while in the lab we used pipettes that we had to keep sterile. It was eye opening because I thought it would be the same as the labs we do here.”
Tatyana Williams, who worked with 12 other students in a lab at Seton Hall on urban farming, said she found the project interesting, especially growing plants from different parts of the world, like Japan and China.
But as interesting as it was, when she attends Dickenson College in the fall, she plans to study political science.
And that’s perfectly fine with Mann, who said his goal is not to have every North Star graduate pursue a STEM major in college.
“We figured that the 6 percent did not represent the true level of interest for students who wanted to pursue a STEM major,” Mann said. “Some students may have been intimidated or felt that lab science was prohibitively difficult, so we wanted to try to break that barrier of inaccessibility. We’re not trying to make them all STEM majors. We’re trying to make them actually choose freely what they want to do. By making almost all of the seniors do a senior research project, they feel comfortable now working in a hard sciences lab.”