BEST Symposium Celebrates Early Research Participation:
Program Promotes Hands-On Science Approach for High School Students
By Ralph Heibutzki, Benton Spirit Correspondent; Photo Credits: Seonui Kang and Karen Heath
For many high school students, their experiences with math and science will never go beyond the pages of a textbook – but Andrews University chemistry professor Dr. Desmond Murray knows there's a better way.
As founder and executive director of the BEST (Building Excellence in Science & Technology) organization and programs, Murray promotes a hands-on approach toward learning science. “We've been doing this for 13 years now – and we know, for a fact, that you don't need to complete four years of high school and four years of college to conduct real research,” Murray said. “It's a waste of talent and a waste of potential. Students in our early research program are already creating and discovering. They're starting to learn the processes of innovation, and starting to be productive, in terms of research. To learn science, you have to do science. Science is something to be experienced.”
On Wednesday, April 27, twenty-two high school seniors from the Berrien County Regional Education Service Agency's Math & Science Center displayed the fruits of that hands-on approach at the Andrews University Science Complex, in Halenz Hall, as part of the 1st BEST Early Research Symposium.
BEST and Berrien RESA co-sponsored the event, along with support from Andrews University Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Benton Spirit Community Newspaper, which showcased projects designed and supervised by Murray. Dr. David Nowack, Chair of the Chemistry Department welcomed everyone to the event and congratulated the students on their initial steps to becoming independent researchers.
Working in two-person teams, students from eight Berrien and Cass County schools presented what they learned. A brief question and answer session immediately followed their PowerPoint presentations.
Wednesday's event concluded with demonstrations held in Halenz's Hall chemistry labs and instrument rooms for the invited guests to get a close up view of the students using modern techniques and state-of-the-art equipment.
According to Murray, students began their projects with clear goals, such as, making specific drugs, polymers or cosmetics that have not been made before. “Underlying these 'catchy' goals are basic and fundamental questions of whether a particular reaction will work or not. Students don't need to know all the theory ahead of time – that's part of what we do in this project. As the project progresses, the student progresses in knowledge and confidence,” Murray said.
For Alex Moore, of Berrien Springs High School, who worked on making novel Vitamin B hybrid drugs, the mistakes made during his investigations provided the most important lessons. “We've learned, through all of the experiments that we've conducted, that they sometimes do fail – and that failure is a part of life,” Moore said. “But, as in life, you have to go past that, to push yourself, in order to make your project succeed.”
Lisa Bowman, of Bridgman High School, felt the chance to learn various ways of problem-solving provided the most meaningful part of her experience with Murray. “We've never had a class where you had a teacher that let you screw up,” Bowman said, to laughter from the audience. “He (Murray) let us screw up! I mean, I screwed up a lot – I wanted a good grade! So it's been really nice to be able to screw up, and learn from it.”
In their presentation, Bowman and partner Kristine Gordon, of Buchanan High School, voiced similar feelings as they recalled their efforts to create cosmetic agents that are biodegradable – that is, capable of breaking down by natural processes. “Our first step worked right off the bat,” Bowman said. “Our second step, we stumbled a little bit. We both really wanted that second step to work.” After much trial and error, the pair eventually discovered a process that worked, according to Gordon. “It was really nice – instead of Dr. Murray telling us what we had to do, we had to figure it out on our own,” Bowman said. “But, as you can see, we were very successful.”
Coloma High School senior Alexandra Ehlers and her partner, Edwardsburg High School senior Matt Hunter, sought to figure out how to combine Vitamin C with other drugs into a single molecule. Ehlers said she felt sufficiently inspired to investigate other methods that might get them closer to the ultimate goal. “What we would really like to do in the future is develop a more predictive and reliable model,” she said.
Hunter, who will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall, said that Murray's class was unlike anything he'd ever experienced. “We learned the theoretical side from previous classes – sure, we have that,” Hunter said. “We were gaining the tools. However, almost every day in this class, we were on our feet in the lab putting stuff together, making new things. Science is only good when it's applied, so that's what we were trying to do here.”
In attendance were several parents of students, administrators from Berrien RESA and Andrews University, principals from Berrien County High Schools, professors from Andrews University, representatives from Muskegon Area ISD Math & Science Center, and Clay High School in South Bend, IN.
Ms. Mary Judnich, Regional Manager for United States Senator Debbie Stabenow, who visited with last school year’s senior chemistry class, was also in attendance.
Berrien RESA Math & Science Center Coordinator Tonya Snyder said that students can apply as eighth graders to the program. Admission is based on grades, teacher recommendations and a brief essay about what they expect to get out of their classes at the center, Snyder said.
Applicants must also take the SAT college entrance exam, as a further condition of admission. “Usually, there's about 75 applications, and we take the top 30. Once they're in the program, they're in the program,” Snyder said. “They don't have to re-apply every year. It's great, because it provides a safe environment for them – that's one of the wonderful parts about the way that Dr. Murray conducts the chemistry class, in particular. One of the core things to learn is the freedom to fail – to keep learning, and keep improving.”
That's one reason Murray re-structured the Grade 12 class in a nontraditional way, with no tests, final exams, or quizzes. Instead, students spend about 75 percent of their time in the lab, doing the hands-on research that he promotes as the best approach to learn science. “Many of these projects have applications in the real world, and form the basis for further collaborations with other universities. We are doing collaborations with Hope College, Western Michigan University, and even internationally with CPE Lyon in France,” Murray said.
“Many of these collaborations are based on preliminary findings of our high school students. This is one of the many benefits derived from engaging students in research earlier than normal. This is what BEST is all about. Events like this gives the public a glimpse into this exciting 're-invention' of science education. We provide year-round opportunities, including paid summer jobs, for high school students to conduct real research. BEST also strongly advocates for universal adoption of early research participation as a sustainable solution to the under-performance of American students in math and science. This is the future and the future begins now.”