Experimental Summer

What turns genes on? What is modular arithmetic? How do you program a robotic dog to sit? These were some of the questions eight Yonkers High School students investigated recently as part of the Summer Science Program. The teens worked side by side with Sarah Lawrence undergraduates and faculty in five labs on campus, conducting experiments in physics, molecular biology, developmental robotics, computer science, and organic chemistry.

The weeklong collaboration allowed the high school students the chance to pursue serious scientific study as part of a team and gave them their first glimpse of college life. But the teens weren’t the only ones who benefited: Undergraduates were transformed into mentors by the process.

 Sarah Lawrence students who participate in the Summer Science Program spend six to ten weeks on campus working intensively on a research project. This year, for the first time, the undergraduates also got to be teachers. “We were able to show leadership skills, take charge, and teach them. They got to mirror us. They could watch me do an experiment and then run it on their own,” said Kady Goldlist ’11.

Ansu Andrews was one of the Yonkers students who worked with Goldlist in the organic chemistry lab. She ran experiments that will help identify amino acids present in various marine animals. “I got to put into perspective what I learned last year about peptide bonds. Kady showed us how to draw them,” Andrews explained.

Students in the robotics and computer science labs experienced firsthand the importance of attention to detail. Teena Alex and her partner spent the week programming a robotic dog to do tricks. “I never thought making a dog sit would be so difficult. You have to be really precise in telling it what to do. If you forget a parenthesis, it’s not going to work,” she said.

Biology faculty member Drew Cressman commended the high school students. “They didn’t have a lot of experience in my particular field of science, but they were very impressive in their ability to pick things up quickly,” said.

The Summer Science Program is in its eighth year, though this is only the second time high school students have been involved. Cressman piloted the program last year with three high school students. This summer, five faculty members participated, along with 14 Sarah Lawrence students.

From the enthusiasm evident on the day of the high school students’ final presentations, the collaboration was a resounding success—even when the experiments didn’t turn out as expected. Sometimes the robots didn’t do what they were supposed to. In the molecular biology lab, proteins didn’t act the way students had anticipated. But participants learned that those results are all part of the process and are valid scientific data.

While the students ate lunch outside the Alice Stone Ilchman Science Center on a bright July afternoon, there was only one common complaint: The week just seemed to go by too quickly.