Mentoring to Spark A Student's Interest In Science

by Robyn Thomas

Adlai E. Stevenson High School's Science Professionals as Resource Knowledge (SPARK)program is a specialized effort designed to pair hands-on laboratory science with a nurturing mentorship experience. Gifted sophomore and junior science students are given the opportunity to work with a scientist in the community on an independent research project in a specific field of interest.

SPARK was initiated in 1986 as a vehicle to expose students to a wider range of experiences and attitudes in science. It is intended to be an extension of the classroom science lab with the added support and guidance of an experienced mentor. Those students involved gain increased knowledge of experimental design and the use of laboratory equipment for gathering data while experiencing both the triumphs and tribulations of research on a daily basis. They are also exposed to the working relationships between laboratory and office personnel. This program presents students with the challenge of practical science, encourages maturity and cultivates close relationships with one or more professional researchers. This bond between student and mentor often continues after the project is completed.

Students are selected for SPARK on the basis of teacher recommendations, academic achievement and personal interviews. Once a suitable mentor has been screened and accepted, he/she meets with one of two student candidates and a placement decision is made. A student and mentor must feel comfortable with each other from the beginning in order to make the project a rewarding experience for all involved. This partnership is critical in determining the success of the program.

The SPARK mentor is a carefully screened, practicing scientist in the community with access to laboratory facilities. He/she serves as not only a source of information, but as a sounding board, a role model, and more importantly, a friend.

This program represents a twelve month commitment for which the student receives independent study credit. Students work an average of six to eight hours per week during the summer and cut back to two to four hours when school resumes. Those completing exceptional research projects have the opportunity to submit their work to various science competitions and professional societies.

Dr. Thomas Antonio of the Chicago Botanic Garden and Richard Wendt of Motorola are two mentors who have been instrumental in the success of the SPARK program. Both have had several SPARK students and have developed very detailed and meaningful projects for their students.

Dr. Antonio is currently working with Lanie Shum on a study of two varieties of a plant in the genus Prenathes (lion's foot), which are native to the Midwest. Lanie is investigating possible reasons for the different flower positions in Prenanthes alba (hanging flowers) and Prenathes racemosa (erect flowers). On any given day at Chicago Botanic
Garden, one might find Lanie in the field gathering data with a light meter or collecting pollinators that visit the flowers. She could also be found in the lab using a microscope to determine the viability and number of seeds produced by each specimen.

Mike Pozzi is currently working with Richard Wendt at Motorola. He is developing a differential reluctance sensor that could be used in anti-lock braking systems for electric cars or for other electronic equipment. The particular problem he is trying to overcome is the existence of considerable magnetic field during the operation of this type of equipment. His sensor must negate the effects of this magnetic field in order to work properly. After several months of testing, Mike will be able to apply for a patent on his sensor.

SPARK students express several common themes regarding their involvement in the program. All mention their heightened desire to work in science and the thrill of being able to work in an actual laboratory. Students also note the satisfaction of being able to work with diverse groups of people. One student revealed, "I felt like part of the company. The hands-on work really made me feel like I was helping them and not just doing my own project." Finally, the students all express a sense of pride in their accomplishments. Even when the research didn't go as smoothly as they had expected, they persevered due to a strong sense of ownership in their projects.

The SPARK program has proved to be a successful way to introduce students to the real world of science. Other Chicago suburban high schools are beginning to pilot similar programs in hopes of expanding the horizons of more students. Programs such as SPARK may prove to be a turning point in a student's life. Experience and knowledge gained through this type of education opportunity can lead to better decision making about college and the future. One well-placed spark is all it may take to fuel a lifetime of success.


Robyn Thomas is from the Science Department at Adlai E Stevenson High School, Lincolnshire, Illinois, USA