Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera was an engineering major in college – for one semester.
“Then I tutored at one of the local high schools, at Reading High School, and I fell in love with education,” Rivera told a group of high school students at Duquesne University on Monday. “I remember calling my mother and telling her, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about switching my major from engineering to education.’ There was a pause on the phone, and she said, ‘Oh no you’re not.’”
The nine students who spent the afternoon with Rivera are all participating in Duquesne's Project SEED. Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Jennifer Aitken coordinates the program, which is funded by the American Chemical Society and takes place at colleges and universities across the country each summer.
“This is an eight week program, the students are here eight hours a day, and they participate in real chemistry research,” Aitken said. “The goal of the program is to try to inspire the students to go on for a career in chemistry or STEM, or at a minimum, to get these students to go onto college and open their horizons.”
Rivera asked for a show of hands to find out how many of the participants were first generation, college-bound students. As several hands went up, Rivera revealed that he, too, was the first in his family to go to college.
His introduction to college-level science was an electrical engineering program he participated in at the University of Pennsylvania when he was a senior in high school, he said.
“We have a very similar pathway when you think of how my whole college and professional career started was really engaging in programs just like this,” Rivera said.
Project SEED participants come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds but are high achieving students; many reported straight A’s or a spot among the top 10 percent of their respective classes.
Aitken said the program requires them to conduct real-world research, such as developing better materials out of which to create joint replacements.
“They’re working on the surfaces of these replacements, so that they’re more accepted by the body,” Aitken said. “They’ll be able to be used longer and there will be less rejection or health issues.”
Amber Latona, who graduated from West Mifflin High School in the spring and expects to study psychology and biology at Carlow University next year, is working closely with Aitken to perfect experiments that will eventually become part of Duquesne’s curriculum.
“I’m developing blue pigments that are industrially useful and safe for the environment, and this project will eventually be a laboratory module for integrated lab students,” Latona said.
Other students shared research on genetics, gunshot residue and the effectiveness of using activated carbon to filter arsenic out of water.
“This is an example of exactly what we’d like to see more of,” Rivera said.
After his visit at Duquesne, Rivera headed to Carnegie Mellon University where he visited with high school students participating in one of three Governor’s School for the Sciences statewide, which gives teenagers an opportunity to do research in biological sciences, chemistry, physics, mathematics and computer science.