TAMPA — She was missing an end-of-the-school-year party thrown by her friends at King High School, but their attempts to rub it in wouldn’t rile Mallika Bhatta.
“They were all sending me pictures from the party, but I was sending them texts back saying, ‘I’m at a better place than you.’”
That better place for the Tampa teenager was the University of South Florida’s Pre-College, a summer program that gives high school students a chance to experience college-level academics, pursue academic and career interests and explore the independence of university life.
Last week’s program, one of seven planned over the summer, focused on diabetes and medicine. Additional sessions will focus on science and engineering in addition to filmmaking and game design.
While their peers partied, slept late or hit the beach, 18 of Florida’s best and brightest headed to the USF campus to learn the basic science underlying diabetes health; perform hands-on research in USF labs; visit the university’s research centers, including the Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation; and carry out field research at Fort De Soto Park.
“I’m not much of a party person anyway,” said Dominic Montas, who will be a junior this fall at Seminole High School in Sanford. “I find this stuff to be more interesting, more fun. I want to get a head start on my college career, and I’m pretty sure this is a really good way to set me apart from everybody else.
“I’ll have time for parties and such later.”
It’s the incentive most cited among the participants — to get a leg up on their peers as they take aim at higher education. There’s motivation for the university as well.
“There’s a major issue across the country in terms of students remaining in hard-core science and technology majors,” said Richard Pollenz, associate dean and director of the school’s Office for Undergraduate Research and an organizer of Pre-College.
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Just 4 in 10 freshmen who start in the critical STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — graduate in one of those fields. And in the new era of performance-based funding, USF and Florida’s other public universities are being judged on how many of their graduates are in programs that the state considers of strategic emphasis, including the critical STEM fields.
USF reported that 26 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2012-13 were in STEM fields, and the school wants to push that number to 31 percent by 2016-17.
“A lot of it deals with the fact that the students have to go through a lot of rote-level courses before they can get some experiential components, especially majors-level courses,” Pollenz said. “Experiments like the one we’re doing here give the students hands-on activities, so they can see the application of particular experiments to what they’re learning in the classroom. This has been shown to make a huge difference for the students’ ability to better connect to the major and stick it through.”
One morning last week, students learned how to use high-end digital pipettes to conduct a standard curve assay. It’s a common college-level lab exercise in measuring and graphing properties such as concentration of a protein then extrapolating those properties onto an unknown sample.
Pollenz put the level of the exercise at the sophomore college. A procedure planned the next day might be undertaken in a junior college lab. Many of the participants in Pre-College will be juniors in high school this fall.
“You empower them and they will be successful,” Pollenz said. “If the student gets this and they get it early, this is what makes the difference for them staying in the discipline. And that’s the whole point here.”
The group last week appeared to get it.
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Chaya Bhat, who will enter her senior year this fall at Robinson High in Tampa, said she appreciated the opportunity to plow into the “inquiry aspect” of research.
In high school, “we’re allowed to do experiments and things like that, but we’re not often allowed to question and explore things in a deeper sense,” she said. “We’re given a standard textbook, and it’s, ‘Read this, read that,’ and it’s more about learning the information instead of learning the knowledge.”
Shanteria Knowles, an incoming senior from Deerfield Beach High School in Broward County, has Type I diabetes and said she hoped the session would help her gain insight into her own condition.
“I’m not saying I wasn’t well-educated about it before, but I just wanted to go in-depth to see where this chronic illness came from, the scientific reasoning,” she said.
Tuition for the STEM Academy on Diabetes & Medicine was $1,295. Other Pre-College residential programs run in the same ballpark. Two-day commuter programs cost less.
The early Pre-College numbers are encouraging to USF. Of 14 soon-to-be college seniors in the inaugural 2012 course, 10 applied and were accepted to USF and five enrolled in 2013. Four of those were in STEM fields and three were still in those disciplines after their first year.
Of 21 potential students in 2013, 15 applied to USF and 14 were accepted for this fall. So far, three of those have committed to USF, with others still able to do so.
In addition to the scientific work in the lab and field, Pre-College students also have to navigate the social aspects of dorm life. There were light complaints about thin walls and scheduling bathroom and shower time with a dorm roommate, but the students seemed to be adjusting.
“The biggest step was realizing that next year, when we head off to college, this is what it’s going to be. It’s the idea of slowly starting to prepare yourself,” said Bhat. “This is kind of like dipping your toes in the water and getting a feel for what it’s really going to be like.”