When University of Akron polymer science associate professor Dr. Matthew Becker teamed up with St. Vincent-St. Mary High School chemistry and biology teacher Joanna Price and 17-year-old junior Oliver Hildebrandt to conduct cutting-edge tissue engineering research, the trio formed an unlikely partnership. But their collaboration isn’t so much about achieving a scientific breakthrough as it is about inspiring a new generation of scientists.
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“There’s a national shortage of talent in the sciences,” says Becker, noting that Americans represent less than half of all students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines at universities in the U.S. “Furthermore, for a number of reasons, women and minority groups continue to be underrepresented in these disciplines. There are great opportunities for women and minorities to grow and excel in science-related careers.”
Bent on reversing a trend among students to divert from science studies after they complete high school graduation requirements or baccalaureate studies, six professors from the UA College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering have teamed up with science teachers and students from Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School to provide an upfront view of research and hands-on laboratory experience, giving students a preview of career opportunities that await and their teachers a greater understanding of practical research. Faculty members involved in the teams include: Dr. Kevin Cavicchi, assistant professor, polymer engineering; Dr. Sadhan Jana, professor and chair of the department of polymer engineering; Dr. Li Jia, assistant professor, polymer science; Dr. Alamgir Karim, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. Professor of Polymer Engineering; and Dr. Judit Puskas, professor, polymer science.
From left to right: Dr. Matthew Becker, UA associate professor of polymer science, St. Vincent-St. Mary junior and honors chemistry student Oliver Hildebrandt and STVM science teacher Joanna Price at UA’s Goodyear Polymer Center where Hildebrandt and Price are working with Becker.
Dr. Jolanta Marszalek, postdoctoral fellow, polymer engineering
“Teachers have to learn what’s going on in the real world so we can influence our students,” says Price, who points out that she brings her newfound knowledge and experiences from UA to all of her students at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School and plans to do so over the long term.
The program began when St. Vincent-St. Mary Science Chair Mary Jo Chionchio contacted UA with the support of her entire science staff and their approach to inquiry-based science for high school education.
“We as a faculty were impressed,” Becker says. “Many of our faculty here at the University of Akron have been committed to educational outreach efforts for a long time, but this partnership is a very different approach. The idea is to develop a sustained relationship over time, empowering individual teachers to stir a passion and deeper understanding of the sciences within their students for years to come. I feel very fortunate that dean [Stephen] Cheng and associate dean [Mark] Foster have been so supportive of these efforts.”
Dr. Alamgir Karim, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. professor of polymer Engineering
As part of the program, Karim and postdoctoral fellow Dr. Jolanta Marszalek provide mentorship to St. Vincent–St. Mary senior Renee Horn, involving her in the intricacies of their development of polymer prosthesis scaffolds.
“The students and their teachers have the opportunity to tackle problem-solving issues related to biomaterials research while working in a leading polymer research center and capitalizing on its tremendous resources,” Karim says.
Marszalek notes that these extraordinary partnerships enable teenagers to envision themselves as future scientists and engineers. She points out that positive experiences such as this collaboration can have a lasting effect, comparable to the influence Marszalek’s high school chemistry teacher had on her, inspiring her to pursue advanced science studies and expertise in polymer engineering.
Hildebrandt, who says he plans to explore careers in science, engineering or medicine, punctuates that notion.
“I would recommend an experience such as this to anyone who is at all motivated by science,” Hildebrandt says. “Science no longer has geek or Einstein stereotypes; it’s not even close to nerdy. Science is what’s in now.”
Media contact: Denise Henry, 330-972-6477 or email@example.com.