The striking complexity of the chemical formula on Emi Escobar’s poster — a balanced equation showing the reaction that makes potassium nitrate and powdered sugar a rocket propellant — belied the simplicity of the formula that brought her to the Crystal Room of Alumnae Hall on the afternoon of Saturday, May 5.
Escobar was there to present her research at an end-of-semester gathering of Brown Science Prep — BSP, a program in which Brown undergraduates mentor dozens of high schoolers from schools in Providence and Central Falls. Everyone’s a volunteer. Everyone has other things they could be doing. The elements in this mix are merely the students and their desire to share a curiosity about science. The reaction is simple, but it yields many products: education, inspiration, and sometimes bonding unlike what literal chemistry describes.
“When I see those mentors who are always helping and they explain so much, I feel so comfortable with them, and I feel like a family,” said Escobar, a junior at E-Cubed Academy in Providence.
She fell in with the BSP crowd, about 20 Brown students and 30 high schoolers strong, like most kids do. BSP students came to her school at the beginning of the year and described the program. Local students of any age can not only come to Barus & Holley from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday for a science class and thematic activities, but also gain a connection to a knowledgeable, college-experienced teacher and friend.
“As much of a teaching program as we are, we’re also a mentoring program,” said Mark Sabbagh, a neuroscience senior and a co-coordinator this year for BSP, which receives support from the University’s Science Center and focuses on schools with large proportions of underrepresented minorities.
For one student at the fair, Central Falls High School senior David Hernandez, the program was a sneak preview of Brown. At the Saturday science fair he presented a poster explaining how the complex “eukaryotic” cells in plants and animals evolved through the combination of much simpler “prokaryotic” cells, but he’ll be back in September as a freshman in the Program in Liberal Medical Education.
Hernandez, who competes in his school’s chess club and Science Olympiad program, is clearly brimming with motivation, but what did BSP teach him this semester?
“I learned about digestion, proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids,” he said. “I learned the amount of the chemical composition of each of them. I learned about DNA and some of the social implications of manipulating DNA.”
Headed to medical school as he is, it’s a good sign that his favorite BSP activity of the semester was the fetal pig dissection.
“I learned about pig anatomy and how it relates to human anatomy,” he said.
Sabbagh and co-director Unikora Yang, also a neuroscience senior, said the group’s curriculum usually uses a dissection, or a theme like DNA or outer space, as a platform for teaching science from many angles. The class on DNA was a discussion of scientific ethics, rather than merely a lecture about nucleotides. The lesson about space was not only about the physics of gravity, but also the chemicals formed in stars and the physiological reaction astronauts have to weightlessness.
Motivated to make the time
Remarkably, both the undergraduates and high school students at BSP make the time to be there. The Brown students commit more than just a few Saturday hours a week. With their own classes to attend and exams to pass, they also take time to plan each weekend’s lessons — those fetal pigs don’t just walk into the classroom — and they call their mentees at least once a week to keep them inspired and engaged and to offer their support.
The high school students also face their share of competing priorities. Amanda Irwin, a junior at Blackstone Academy in Providence, came to the science fair right after taking the SAT. Somehow amid that pressure, she still found the resolve to conduct the research necessary to produce a two-page paper on the difficulty of addressing brain cancer. Earlier this year, she said, a friend became stricken with central neurocytoma and she wanted to understand the disease.
Meanwhile, Nathan Monash, a Blackstone Academy sophomore, said his parents were somewhat wary of the time he spent making his poster the Sunday before the BSP fair because that’s the day he typically does his chores (he cleared his calendar by doing them Monday instead). He had already committed a Saturday before that to doing his experiments, in which he investigated the effect that salt has on water’s freezing temperature. Monash said his attraction to science is that it helps him find answers to everyday questions in logical terms. He wants to go to college to study chemistry. Through BSP, he was already doing just that, albeit informally.
“I came to pretty much every session,” he said. “I just wanted to learn as much as I possibly could from this.”
That kind of thirst for knowledge and exposure to a college setting is what, in turn, motivates the BSP undergraduates, said Deepa Chellappa, a sophomore who, along with Stephanie Koo and Michael Fernandopulle, will become the new coordinators next year.
“To me it’s always amazing that they come and that they are interested and that they like us, and that gives us the motivation to keep making our program better and keep working to make their time here as enriching and full as it can be,” she said.
A week before the fair, Chellappa and some other friends tried something new in the six-year history of the BSP. They reached out to younger kids by staging a one-day exhibit at the Providence Children’s Museum. Like Sabbagh and Yang, Chellappa concentrates in neuroscience, so the group drew from its strength by hitting on the theme of the senses. In a room of the museum from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., they assembled optical illusions, musical instruments, a guess-that-smell activity, and a pile of jellybeans because those taste different when one holds one’s nose.
Chellappa said between 50 and 100 kids came by. She’s excited about the chance to reach out further into the community.
“That’s something we’ve always wanted to do,” she said.
And isn’t doing what you’ve always wanted to do exactly the right way to spend a Saturday?