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Project SEED at Duquesne University turns teens into STEM superstars

Project SEED
Amanda Waltz
July27/ 2016

As an undergraduate at Rider University in New Jersey, Dr. Jennifer Aitken remembers her first experience with the Project SEED program there.

“There was a lab next to me, and that professor had a Project SEED program,” says Aitken, now an associate professor in chemistry and biochemistry at Duquesne University.

Over the course of three summers, Aitken observed how the once-awkward teens who entered the program emerged more confident in themselves and in their scientific ability.

“It was like they extremely matured over the course of just eight weeks,” says Aitken. “And I always said to myself, if I’m ever going to be a professor, I would love to do that.”

This summer, while most local teens are enjoying a vacation from school, others are going back to the classroom to do intensive STEM research for the Project SEED program that Aitken set up at Duquesne University.

The American Chemical Society founded Project SEED in 1968 to provide educational opportunities to high-achieving, economically disadvantaged high school students. The eight-week summer program places teens in a laboratory environment on the Uptown campus, where they receive encouragement and guidance as they work on various projects related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as the STEM fields.

When Dr. Aitken started her career at Duquesne University 13 years ago, she set up the first Project SEED in western Pennsylvania and continues to serve as its director. Since its inception, the program has hosted 59 students, two-thirds of which have been female, and more than half of which have been African-American, Hispanic or biracial, all under-represented groups in STEM.

In order to apply, Project SEED candidates must submit an essay stating their interest in science, a transcript and letters of recommendation from two teachers. In addition, their family’s household income cannot exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

This year, Aitken and her team accepted 10 students from the Allderdice, Carrick and Sto-Rox high schools, the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School (CAPA), the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy and the Urban Pathways Public Charter School.

On June 20, the students were assigned to one of three research projects, among them a breast cancer investigation and two studies, one on gunshot residue and one on semiconductors. Each student’s progress is overseen by a faculty mentor and an undergraduate or graduate student mentor. A high school teacher also facilitates interactions between the students and mentors. Their work will continue until Aug. 12.

Aitken says one aspect that distinguishes them from other STEM programs is the intensity of the research students take on.

“These are cutting-edge, scientific projects, many of which are funded by federal agencies and are really important to the faculty and students here,” says Aitken, referring to the breast cancer and semiconductor studies, which are funded by the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation, respectively.

As part of the program, the Project SEED group will attend the annual Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium at the Bayer Learning Center and Mellon Hall of Science on July 29. During the event, they’ll present their research with detailed posters summarizing the methods that they used to investigate the problem, their results and their conclusions.

Aitken says that, over the years, a handful of Project SEED participants have gone on to pursue careers in STEM, which is a major goal of the program. She adds that one of her first students is now a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh getting his Ph.D. in chemistry.

While Project SEED focuses on STEM education, Aitken explains that much of its value lies in steering teens towards applying for college, regardless of what major they choose.

“By being here at Duquesne in this college environment and having the success of their projects, that’s going to push them further,” says Aitken.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared in The Pittsburgh City Paper, The Syracuse Post-Standard and Pop City. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.