The UConn Department of Chemistry, working alongside the Office of Early College Programs & UConn Early College Experience (ECE), annually brings high school students from around Connecticut to the Storrs campus to see exactly what happens in their research laboratories – a tradition that continued this year, despite the challenges of a global pandemic.
The yearly event is a great chance for high schoolers to be exposed to chemistry and related STEM fields as they consider their future studies and careers.
While the COVID-19 pandemic prevented those types of in-person visits this year, a Berlin High School chemistry teacher worked with UConn to make sure his students had that type of experience virtually.
“The visits to UConn are really important to the students taking UConn classes for credit in high school,” says Brendan Wilkosz ’03 (ED), ’04 M.Ed., who has been at Berlin HS since 2004, and teaches a chemistry class that grants UConn credit through the ECE program. “There can be a disconnect for the students if they are physically separated from UConn. This year, that was not possible, but it was important for me to do something, so we worked on a virtual day. There was a real willingness at UConn to get that done to have students experience the challenges and complexities of the work, but also see that the research is cutting edge.”
The virtual experience took place over two days – May 12 and 13. On the first day, the students did an in-person experiment with Wilkosz that was designed by UConn chemistry faculty, and on the following day, the students were able to talk about that work in small groups with UConn faculty and graduate assistants.
The experiment helped the high school students start to understand using gold nanoparticles to fight cancer, and was from the laboratory of Jessica Rouge, an associate professor who leads the Rouge Research Group at UConn.
“I had an experience similar to this when I was in high school, and that helped lead me to what I do today,” says Rouge. “If we can get to high school students really early on, we can open up their minds to research science – especially females, because there are not that many in chemistry. We try to show them that we are normal people who like science, not crazies who are locked in a lab somewhere.”
Fatma Selampinar, an associate professor in residence, has been working with engaging with Connecticut’s high school chemistry students and teachers since the mid-2000s. At UConn, she teaches introduction to chemistry courses for both science and non-science majors.
“Many students think that chemistry is too hard for them and they feel that they don’t need to learn it,” says Selampinar. “We try to introduce the high school students to the subject and let them know it’s fun to do research and work in a lab. We try to show them all the things you use in your life that are part of chemistry.”
ECE Executive Director Brian Boecherer is quick to praise the efforts of Rouge and Selampinar.
“In terms of deep outreach to the high schools of Connecticut, it’s hard to find someone else who has done more than Fatma,” says Boecherer. “When Jessica first did her faculty orientation, she made it a point to reach out to me to talk about her amazing mentors that she first had in high school. We have two people here who are experts in their academic field. Fatma manages dozens of chemistry courses and Jessica has multiple research labs, but they take a special interest in connecting with high schools students and their instructors.
“These high school students are being exposed to some of the great brilliant minds in the United States, who just so happen to be working at UConn.”
The Berlin HS students who took part in the virtual chemistry day included senior Molly Brett, who will be a freshman nursing major at UConn in the fall.
“To actually understand what was happening in the experiment and learn what I was doing from the professors was really interesting,” says Brett. “We were able to see really small particles and how the electrons were all jumping around. It was just really cool.”
Twin sisters Emily and Susan Wisniewski also took part, and are both headed to UConn in the fall as applied mathematics majors.
“When I graduate, I want to get into cancer research, and what the professors taught us about gold nanoparticles was very interesting,” says Emily. “I may even want to be part of Dr. Rouge’s lab when I get to UConn.”
Susan has similar career interests as her sister, and believes the ECE classes she has taken in high school will help her prepare for college.
“These classes require your dedication,” says Susan. “I think it will help me at UConn because of the workload and the time you have to put into them.”