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The Tulane Science Scholars Program:
Creating the Scientists of Tomorrow

By Benjamin Morris

Bryce Avery, Madison Smither, and Catie Demaret in a TSSP lab session

Bryce Avery, Madison Smither,
and Catie Demaret in a
TSSP lab session.

In today's competitive academic environment, students face more pressure than ever to find the right university, the right major, the right internship, and the right career choices. To many students, the questions can seem daunting, even insurmountable—how will they choose the right program? How will they know which degree is right for them? How can they be protected from making a mistake?

Fortunately, thanks to an innovative program offered by the School of Science and Engineering at Tulane, these questions are becoming much more manageable. The Tulane Science Scholars Program (TSSP) is an opportunity for students to experience college life and academics while still in high school, even while earning college credit for the courses they take. Offering focused science education in a condensed setting over two weeks in the summer, the TSSP gives secondary students a chance to take new classes, explore new material, and see what areas of scientific inquiry match their interests.

"The TSSP gives high school students, both local and out of state, the opportunity to earn college credit before they graduate high school as well as experience Tulane as a possible college choice. Many of the out-of-town students are considering Tulane for college," says Dr. Michelle Sanchez, Professor of Practice and the Director of K-12 STEM Outreach at Tulane.

During the program, participants may choose to live on campus and enjoy a myriad of extracurricular activities alongside their academic work in classrooms and the labs. Far from simply serving as 'science summer camp,' however, the material covered in TSSP courses is every bit as rigorous as normal undergraduate coursework, incorporating lab work, assignments and exams, and counting for a full three hours of credit in topics such as evolutionary biology, neuroscience and electronics. Classes must be approved by the School curriculum committee prior to being offered, and usually range between ten and twenty students — the size of a typical undergraduate seminar, ensuring the close interaction between students and faculty that is the hallmark of a Tulane education.

Nor should students expect a walk in the park. "Our instructors don't dumb anything down," says Eleanor Berault, Program Coordinator for K-12 STEM Outreach. "TSSP students aren't simply handed an 'A'. They're expected to work for their grades — these are aspirational young men and women, who are amazingly self-sufficient."

Matthew Escarra, Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Engineering Physics, echoes the point, recognizing that the students of today are the scientists and engineers of tomorrow, and that the value of the program is shared equally between students and faculty. "For me," he says, "it is important to connect the ideas we're exploring in our lab with the experiences and interests of the next generation. The TSSP class provides an excellent environment for sharing the research topics that we’re excited about and getting feedback from young folks from various walks of life."

Applications to TSSP more than tripled last year, resulting in a total of 65 participants from thirteen states and two additional countries outside the United States. Thanks to the generosity of Tulane alumni donors as well as nonprofit foundations such as the Bruce J. Heim Foundation, Berault says, the School was able to increase the course offerings as well as offer new scholarships to those selected (in 2015, 18 full and partial scholarships were offered). Among the recipients of those scholarships was Madison Smither, who won in the category of "Medicine and Health" at the 2015 Greater New Orleans Science and Engineering Fair (GNOSEF) with her research on the effects of light exposure at night on cancer development.

"Receiving the GNOSEF scholarship to the Tulane Science Scholars Program was such an incredible honor," Smither says, "and my participation in TSSP was such a stimulating, challenging, and motivating experience. …Taking a college course with a group of high schoolers who shared interests, drive, and motivation allowed us to exchange ideas and perspectives in a stimulating and challenging learning environment. TSSP has opened my mind to new scientific fields and allowed me to see the great breadth of science itself."

Over the years, the program has continued to evolve: new to the 2015 program were a suite of outings across Tulane's campus and the city of New Orleans, including admissions tours, trips to city museums, and meetings with Tulane faculty and students to help high school students better determine where Tulane fits into their college plans. The long-term goals for the program, Berault says, are to continue to expand the course offerings and financial aid, and hopefully to offer a class from every department in the School.

Even in the short-term, however, for students seeking a collegiate education in science and engineering, and interested in what Tulane in particular has to offer, the opportunity to experience that education ahead of time could not be more valuable. As Sydney Weiner from New York, a 2014 TSSP participant in neuroscience who is now applying to Tulane in the fall, says, "Before I decided to attend TSSP, Tulane was of strong interest to me. However, after my time on campus, my love for Tulane grew exponentially. I truly had such an amazing time on campus during my two-week course. Up until I took this course I wasn't certain about what I wanted to do with my future and this helped solidify the fact that I want to pursue a career in science. …The combination of the lab and the lecture really gave me a holistic view of both the theoretical and experimental sides of neuroscience."

Registration for next year's TSSP opens in February 2016. Interested high school students — typically juniors and up, though freshmen and sophomores are welcome to apply — are encouraged to speak with their college counselor before applying. Required for registration are a high school transcript, letter of recommendation, and personal essay. Interested students may visit the TSSP website at http://tulane.edu/sse/tssp/ and are encouraged to contact Eleanor Berault, Program Coordinator, at 504-314-7860, or eleanor@tulane.edu, for more details.

School of Science and Engineering, 201 Lindy Boggs Center, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5764 sse@tulane.edu