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Area high school students exposed to ‘big-time science’

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet staff
Friday July 12, 2002

This summer Kelsey Israel-Trumnel, like a lot of teenagers, is slaving over an oven to make some summer cash. But it’s not a typical oven – and it isn’t sitting in the kitchen of a local restaurant. 

Israel-Trumnel, who will be a senior at Berkeley High School this fall, is building a small oven that science researchers will use to heat potassium atoms and learn more about how they function and change.  

She is one of 26 high school students from the area working a six-week internship at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  

Building the oven in the lab’s chemical sciences department, she said, has given her an appreciation for the day-to-day work of a professional scientist 

It has also taught her how individual scientific disciplines like physics, chemistry and engineering interact in the real world. 

“You really can’t learn that in the classroom,” Israel-Trumnel said, noting that the high school curriculum tends to separate the disciplines. 

Israel-Trumnel and eight other Berkeley High School students got the internships through the lab’s High School Student Research Participation Program.  

The program matches up local teenagers with scientists and engineers at the lab who serve as mentors. Participants, who earn $9 to $12 an hour, also listen to weekly science lectures and take tours of lab facilities. 

Gwen Espino, a Richmond High School counselor who serves as a program director, initiated the effort in the summer of 2000. Espino said the idea took root during a 1999 visit to the lab with a group of students during Latino History Month. 

“I was really impressed by the lab,” she said. “I thought, maybe we could get a partnership going.” 

Espino, who calls herself “very persistent,” worked tirelessly to develop a formal partnership between the laboratory and Richmond High School’s Science Academy, a school-within-a-school. 

That summer, the lab launched a pilot internship program with 11 Richmond High students. 

“When we came out here, they didn’t know us and we didn’t know them,” she said. “But it was a match made in heaven.” 

Last summer, the program expanded to 23 students, drawing from public and private schools in Richmond, Oakland, Berkeley, Vallejo and San Jose. Next year, Espino hopes to match 30 to 35 kids with mentors. 

Rollie Otto, who heads the Center for Science and Engineering Education, said the program seeks to expose promising young students, many of them disadvantaged, to “big-time science.” 

Otto said some of the mentors sought out the program and went right to work. Others, who are used to providing advanced post-doctoral students with open-ended research projects, required a little more help. 

“It’s really hard for many of the scientists to understand what in the world they’d do with high school students,” he said. 

Otto said he works with those scientists to develop discrete projects that can be completed within the program’s six-week window and make a real impact. 

“There’s nothing more thrilling for these students than to understand that they’re making a contribution to the team, no matter how small,” he said. 

Two high school science teachers, hired to work for the program for the summer, also help lead the internships and teach the students some of the scientific principles behind the work they are doing. 

Thanh Huynh, who will be a senior at BHS next year, is designing Web pages at the lab. She said the day-to-day experience in the lab has fostered a new appreciation for science. 

“I’m liking science more. It’s a lot more interesting than when you’re at school,” said Huynh, who hopes to attend UC Berkeley after high school. “Now I want to minor in science.”.