UNC-led summer program introduces high schoolers to geoscience

Jul. 20, 2014 @ 03:42 PM

As a group of high school students looked on from the river bank, professor Brent McKee stuck a tool into the bottom of the Neuse River to collect sand, leaves, sticks and dirt.

Then he carried the core sample back to the shore and instructed the students to spread it out in sections.

“We’re going to go back in time -- that’s our objective,” said McKee, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill marine sciences department, as he led an activity on core sampling research.

McKee said researchers can use core samples to study the earth going back in time. In his own lab, he said they study naturally decomposing elements to date samples back 150 years.

Taking core samples from the river bed was just part of the schedule on Wednesday for students in the IDEA High School Summer Institute, a week-long program designed to encourage under-represented minorities to get involved in the geosciences.

UNC’s Institute for the Environment hosted the program in partnership with N.C. Central University. In addition to hands-on science activities, the students went hiking earlier in the week and canoeing, among other activities. Wednesday’s activities at the Falls Lake State Recreation Area were designed to help introduce students to the lab tools and skills involved in water sampling.

“The whole purpose of this program is to get students in geoscience careers,” said Megan Hoert Hughes, a research associate and an educator at UNC’s Institute for the Environment.

This is the third year of the program, which is paid for through a federal grant, said Kathleen Gray, associate director for outreach and public service at the institute.

In addition to the week during the summer, the high school students also participate in activities on Saturdays during the academic year. In addition, another six to eight six undergraduate students get access to research internships at UNC.

N.C. Central University student Ricoya Dozier, 22, is doing a research internship at UNC. On Wednesday, she helped to lead one of the water sampling exercises for the high school students. She said it was a chance to get out of the lab and into the field.

“I think it’s a great program,” said Anna Jalowska, a doctoral candidate at the UNC marine science department. She taught the high school students to measure the water’s levels of dissolved oxygen and its temperature on Wednesday.

She said the program can introduce students to work that can be fun and that can also help the environment.

 “I think this program helps kids to see what can be next,” she said.

Celeta Smith, a student at Northwood High School in Pittsboro, said she had already been thinking about a future career in science before the program because of the influence of her dad and brother.

“I love science because it’s a growing field; it never stops evolving,” she said.

East Chapel Hill High School student Emmanuel Seyon said he wanted to be a marine scientist growing up, but now he’s more interested in astrophysics.

“It’s actually pretty fun,” Seyon said of Wednesday’s activities. He said he likes doing research, and also enjoyed the hiking that they did earlier in the week at the Eno River State Park.

“I think we are polluting the earth and scientists that help with marine science and stuff like this are helping the earth,” he said.