High school students test science skills during USU program

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 2:03 PM

Nancy Van Valkenburg

LOGAN — Green slime bubbles away in a large, pump-driven fish tank. Vials of bacteria sit in rows on a laboratory counter, awaiting their turns to be added to the algae “soup,” activating the mix to create biofuels.

The budding scientists responsible are Ogden residents Angelica Previte, 15, of Weber High School, and David Schvaneveldt, 17, of NUAMES, the early college high school in Layton.

“I love that you can mess around with living things and change them,” David said. “I took a class in biotechnology, and I’ve been interested for a while.”

Angelica agrees.

“Biological engineering is very interesting,” she said. “There’s so much you can do with it. And I’ve never worked in a laboratory before, so this week has been fun.”

Angelica and David are two of 22 students enrolled this week at Utah State University’s Biotechnology Summer Academy, a weeklong program of learning and experimenting during the day and experiencing college life in the afternoons and evenings.

This year, the program drew one student each from California and Indiana, and the rest from Utah. Last year, a young scholar traveled from Korea to attend.

“High school students hear lectures and work on projects in laboratories dealing with biotechnology,” said Afifa Sabir, who founded the program a dozen years ago. She also is the education coordinator and program director for USU’s Center for Integrated BioSystems.

Students work side by side with professors and graduate students in science areas of interest, which also include chemistry and engineering.

Students stay in campus dormitories and eat food service meals. In the afternoon, they gather for activities, such as soccer, volleyball and miniature golf. Students pay $200 to cover some of the costs.

“College food is actually pretty good, and the dorms are the nicest I’ve seen,” David said. “I’ve had fun here. It’s been really cool to get experience in the lab.”

Ron Sims, USU Biotechnology department chairman and the professor supervising course work by Angelica and David, said the teens are gaining cutting-edge knowledge in a field that could become huge.

“Algae grows in water naturally, in clean water and waste water, and most people with pools have dealt with it,” Sims said.

“It’s a bother to them. Nobody wants to swim in algae, so we are looking at algae that grows in any water environment and using it to make transportation fuels. It makes a positive out of a negative — it can be made locally and can stimulate our economy and decrease our dependence on petroleum fuel.”

Sims hopes USU students who study the process, and David and Angelica, who have gained basic understanding and who may gain more during college, will go on to create or to staff biofuel companies in Utah.

“We want to get good students to come to Utah State and get trained in this technology,” he said. “We want the companies they start or work for to call and ask us for more students to hire …

“We look at our students as a real resource. So it’s a win for the state, a win for USU and a win for the students. Win, win, win.”

Today, students will make PowerPoint presentations of their findings to an audience of their professors and their parents.

“Some students say speaking is hard for them,” Sabir said. “I tell them not to worry, they know more about their presentation than anyone in the room. I tell them to consider there is no one in the room. It’s a piece of cake.”

Sabir said besides knowledge, students leave the Biotechnology Summer Academy with more confidence and a positive attitude about the college years ahead.

“These are the students we want at Utah State,” she said. “They have the interest and the desire. They can apply for scholarships at the end of the program. A high percentage of the students who go through this program come to study at Utah State University.”

Both David and Angelica said they will consider enrolling at USU.

“It’s a cool campus,” Angelica said. “There’s a lot here, and I hadn’t been here before. It’s been fascinating.”

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