SPARTANBURG, SC (courtesy converse.edu) — Dr. Neval Erturk and Converse College’s STARS (Science, Technology and Research Scholars) high school mentoring program were honored during the 2018 InnoVision Awards dinner as recipient of the Ibrahim Janajreh Young Innovator award. The award was established in 2005 to recognize existing, successful South Carolina programs that engage, encourage and acknowledge young people in the areas of science, technology, math and innovation.
The STARS program encourages Upstate area youth to develop interest in STEM fields, to pursue STEM majors, and go on to graduate school and/or a career in a STEM field. “We are an enthusiastic partner in cultivating the next generation of STEM professionals,” said Dr. Erturk, who chairs the Department of Chemistry, Biology and Physics at Converse.
STARS pairs outstanding high school students with Converse faculty for long-term, in-depth science and technology projects. High school students are individually mentored in one of the Converse laboratories in biology, biochemistry, psychology and computer science. Participants also have the opportunity to participate in special-topic workshops that cover topics like writing research proposals and designing experiments; to receive training in responsible conduct of research, laboratory safety and professional public presentation skills; and to report their findings at local, regional and national meetings at the high school and college levels.
Dr. Jeffrey H. Barker, Provost for Converse College, praised Erturk’s leadership and innovation, noting, “The STARS program has given many high school students, including numerous young women, their first taste of real scientific research in a modern laboratory. Dr. Erturk’s work in creating the program and inspiring these students is a source of tremendous pride for Converse. Her continuing guidance and the work of her faculty colleagues nurture tomorrow’s scientific leaders.”
South Carolina is home to numerous major corporations that require a skilled STEM workforce. “Employer demand exceeds available talent nationwide, and this is evident here in our state where we have a large gap between the number of available STEM jobs and the number of qualified candidates,” Erturk said. “Coupled with the recent uptick in South Carolina’s unemployment rate, it is increasingly important to prepare and retain college students pursuing STEM majors in order to produce a qualified workforce.”
After a decade-long study of Converse College’s STEM outreach initiatives, Dr. Erturk led the development of three outreach models that expand the STARS program’s reach:
Track I: “Love Science, Wanna be a Scientist”
This competitive research initiative for high school scholars has been funded both externally (Belle Baruch Foundation, Spartanburg County Foundation, Spartanburg County District Six Office and South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Research Program) and internally, and provides competitive on-campus research opportunities for talented high school students. STARS encourages interest in scientific research careers by pairing students with Converse faculty for long-term, in-depth science and technology projects. Students participate in either an 8-week intensive summer research experience or a year-long academic program hosted after school on the Converse campus. This competitive program is open to talented rising high school juniors and seniors of either gender, and URM students are given special consideration. Evidence of program effectiveness is given by the STEM pursuits of its graduates who are now enrolled at various colleges (e.g., Biostatistics at Simmons College, Biochemistry at Clemson, and various other fields at Wake Forest University, Honors College of University of South Carolina, The National Institute for the Deaf, Wofford College and York Technical College). STARS participants are individually mentored in biology, biochemistry, psychology, and computer science, and also participate in workshops covering the preparation of research proposals, experimental design, and methods for effective scientific presentation. At the completion of each project, students present their research at the local or regional level, in many cases in venues also attended by undergraduate and graduate research students.
Track II: “Love Science but Not Sure”
This new program is specifically designed for students who are highly interested in the STEM field but are uncommitted to a particular discipline. These students will be placed in two-week summer research rotations in 4 different disciplines, which will help them explore various STEM areas. During each rotation, they will work with an advisor who will instill a philosophy of science and provide guidance and recommendations that help shape their future scientific careers.
Track III: “What is STEM???”
This program is designed for youth who are not familiar with STEM disciplines. We partner with high school teachers to bring students to Converse College laboratories for curriculum matched hands-on experiences. Purposes of this activity include enhancing mastery of science subject matter, developing scientific reasoning abilities, developing practical skills, increasing understanding of the nature of science, cultivating interest in science and science learning, and improving teamwork abilities. During these monthly visits, students have an hour-long Career Talk with a professional from a science field. The goals are to expose students to STEM professions, provide them with insights about the “how to’s” of each discipline, underscore the importance of math and science, and encourage students to set high academic goals. Following the Career Talk, students conduct three-hour long laboratory sessions on the topic they have been studying at their school for the previous month.
Legacy Charter School partner teacher, Ms. Neena Kumar, and Track I STARS participants and siblings Emily and Alexander Giep, who are mentored by Erturk, attended the awards dinner along with other Converse representatives. Kumar partners at the high school level by bringing Track III students to Converse. “Legacy’s vision is to see every child to and through college. Opportunities for our high school students to see themselves as college students help demystify college for them, many of whom will be first generation college students,” she said. “I see my role shifting from a classroom teacher to more of a facilitator, pulling students out of their textbook learning and enabling them to make coherent connections between the state standards and the real world.”
Emily Giep’s research in the STARS program grew out of her interest in breast cancer. “I decided I wanted to do something with phytoestrogen because it is a hormone found in higher quantities in soybeans, which I had read could be connected to breast cancer,” she said. “I really think the STARS program is a great opportunity for people like me who have a passion for science.”
Alexander Giep’s research focuses on testing various substances to determine whether they can prevent cancer cells from metastasizing. “The STARS program allows me to work in a real lab, alongside undergraduate students, graduate students, as well as college professors in order to gain experience and know what it is like to do real research,” he said.
InnoVision is South Carolina’s premier organization dedicated to the advancement of innovation and technology. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2018, it is the only awards program of its kind – a grass roots, volunteer led non-profit made-up of businesses, organizations, universities, and individuals dedicated to finding innovation and technology in products, services, and education from across the state, and recognizing and honoring peers for achievements in their respective fields. A mark of distinction for outstanding leadership, innovation, and technological excellence, InnoVision awards are presented in the categories of Technology Development, Small Enterprise, Education, Sustainability, Community Service, and the Ibrahim Janajreh Young Innovators and Dr. Charles Townes Awards. InnoVision also hosts topic-based forums throughout the year. Click here to learn more about Innovision.