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Columbia Science Program Pairs Teens with Grad Students

Ernesto Cruz
Emmanuel Cruz

High school senior Emmanuel Cruz has his heart set on majoring in international business when he starts college in the fall. But after participating in Columbia's Ron McNair CITIES Showcase, Cruz was surprised by his interest in and capacity for science.

Beaming as he stood next to his winning project on the harmful effects of air pollution at Columbia’s first-ever high school science showcase on June 6, Cruz said, “Columbia showed us that there’s another world. They showed us that the world is not only high school. It’s more than that.”

Cruz, who attends Louis D. Brandeis High School, in Manhattan, was one of 25 local high school students honored at Columbia in front of family, friends, teachers and mentors. Made possible through continuing educational outreach efforts by Columbia’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC), the ceremony was an opportunity to pay tribute to the hard-working students who are this year’s winners at the science fairs at their respective schools. The showcase is named after Ron McNair, the NASA astronaut who died in the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986.

Diana Castro, from High School for Enterprise, Business and Technology explains her research on
Diana Castro, from High School for Enterprise, Business and Technology explains her research on "How Big or Small is our Icosahedron?" to Meninder Purewal, a Columbia graduate student who was one of the
volunteers in CITIES this year.

A bilingual student originally from the Dominican Republic, Cruz presented his project in Spanish. Winning the science fair and working with Columbia, he said, helped him believe he can achieve almost anything.

“This gives us a chance to show people that we can do it,” Cruz said. “We too have the potential to turn out our own ideas.”

High school students from three schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan worked on their projects with Columbia graduate students from MRSEC, which established the outreach program in 2003 to assist New York City public high school teachers with their science curricula. In addition to Brandeis, Progress High School and the High School for Enterprise, Business and Technology, both in Brooklyn, also participate in the program.

Dubbed CITIES, for Curriculum Integration to Interactively Engage Students, the program allows graduate students to volunteer for one school year with high school students and teachers to develop science projects on physics, chemistry and the earth science for their school science fairs. Many of the demonstrations were closely tied to the wide-ranging influence of materials in our everyday lives. One project focused on the cooling rate of coffee and one determined the effectiveness of laundry detergent. Others addressed pollution and the current energy crisis.

CITIES was established as a way to help New York City public schools, many of which struggle with limited resources, engage students in science at a very high level.

“Broad-based participation in high school science fairs opens up the world of science-beyond-the-classroom to many young people,” said Irving Herman, professor of applied physics and applied mathematics at Columbia and director of MRSEC.

For Melinda Han, a graduate student who worked with Cruz, CITIES was a chance to give back to the community the best way she knew how—through science.

“It is important for us to pay attention to what’s going on in the community,” said Han, who is studying applied physics and mathematics. “For me, this is the way that I can reach out the best; I think it’s important for people to do what they can do.

– Written by Melanie Farmer. Photographs by David Wentworth.

Published: June 08, 2007
Last modified: Jun 11, 2007