On May 6, seventeen Chicago-area high school students who had been mentored by staff at Argonne National Laboratory were honored for their performance at this year’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) competition, held at the College of DuPage in March.
The awards ceremony brought together the mentors and students to celebrate the accomplishments of the young science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students. The student projects covered fields ranging from biology to physics.
ACT-SO has been a program of the DuPage County NAACP chapter for the past 36 years. Now in its second year, the Argonne/ACT-SO High School Research Program provides mentors and facilities to help students prepare their research for competition. The Argonne volunteer mentors work with the students over a period of seven months.
“Mentoring is so integral to this program because a child cannot be ready for competition, or a promising career, without having a great mentor,” said Dorletta Flucas-Payton, chair of the DuPage County ACT-SO. “The expertise that Argonne provides is critical for us in exposing these students to new career possibilities and preparing them for the national competition, where they will compete with nearly 200 other gold-medal winning ACT-SO chapters throughout the country.”
The national pipeline that guides students into STEM disciplines often connects poorly to communities of color. Without this pipeline—which includes mentors that challenge students to excel and provides them with access to industry-standard technologies and supportive communities—students can find themselves without guidance to pursue STEM careers.
“First-generation college students may not have parents who work in the science or engineering fields, so they don’t get exposed to being a nuclear engineer or a physicist, because they don’t have those pipelines set up to guide them to those careers,” said Argonne research coordinator Jarrad Hampton-Marcell. “Mentoring programs like this are a necessity, not just for Argonne, but for any organization that wants to bring in top talent.”
Argonne’s African American/Black club seized the opportunity to facilitate this pipeline by connecting mentors with each of the 20 participating students. Each student met monthly with mentors who guided them in their experiments, which included the effects of certain over-the-counter medicines on treating gastritis to temperature’s effect on plant photosynthesis to the study of dark matter.
“This in-depth learning, this engagement about what it takes to be a scientist, is very different and I think it is much more successful for all,” said Argonne director Peter Littlewood. “And all the credit has to go to these amazing mentors whose job it is to turn students into scientists. Without them, there is no pipeline, and we could use so many more of them.”
One such volunteer recruited by the African American/Black club is Bruce Sanchez, a postdoctoral student studying dark matter with Argonne’s High Energy Physics division.
“At our first meeting, I talked in general to the students about dark matter and how I use physics as a means to discover signs of it,” said Sanchez. “And now, after months of communicating and directing my student in his project, he’s solved a simple version of the Boltzmann equation, which explains how particles in gas are configured, and shows a very good mastery of the subject.”
This one-on-one approach to supporting students in their pursuit of STEM-related fields makes a big difference. Nearly 98 percent of students who go through the program go to college and many of those graduate return as volunteer mentors, laying the foundation for another generation of professionals.
Harold Gaines, an engineering specialist with Argonne’s Biosciences division, has been a volunteer in the past and knows that sometimes students may not know what they want to explore when they are seeking a mentor.
“Sometimes the students come in and they don’t really have a specific project in mind, and so then we offer up some different options,” Gaines said. “But ultimately, these are some exceptional students who are already taking advanced classes. All we have to do is give them a little push and watch them surpass our expectations.”
“We just can’t wait until people reach the postdoc level to try to develop our feeder pool—we really have to build a pipeline to high school students,” said Maria Curry-Nkansah, chief operating officer for Argonne’s Physical Sciences and Engineering division.
“As professionals, we can connect with the kids and show them how exciting our careers are,” she said. “Then they can see the practical side of their studies and say ‘OK, I can do this, these are just regular people who worked hard and if I work hard I can do the same thing, because I’ve actually touched and felt it through my experience at Argonne.’”
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy.
The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.