USC Reaches Out to Future Scientists Among Community College Students
University of Southern California chemistry professors are successfully reaching out to Cerritos Community College students in an effort to encourage greater minority participation in the physical sciences.
The Summer Research Internship in Solar Energy provides paid summer learning opportunities for qualified community college students. So far a total of seven students have taken part in the program, five of whom have transferred to a four-year institution, two of whom are still in community college.
“Our goal is to foster an interest in science and related careers by providing valuable hands-on research training and intensive mentoring,” said USC assistant professor of chemistry Richard Brutchey, one of the creators of the program. It is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a private, independent foundation, Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA).
Brutchey and the program’s co-creator, USC chemistry professor Stephen Bradforth, along with another USC chemistry professor, Mark Thompson, oversee the three-year-old USC outreach effort. It is currently focused on students at Cerritos Community College (CCC) in southeast LA County. The school, part of the Los Angeles Community College District, reportedly has the sixth-largest population of Latino community college students in the U.S.
Brutchey and Bradforth are both Cottrell Scholars, meaning they have received a major RCSA award which funds excellent scientists who also have a passion for teaching at leading U.S. research universities.
The USC professors work closely with CCC chemistry professor Jeff Bradbury, who encourages and helps to select students for the eight-week summer internship, which pays $3,400. To be eligible, students majoring in any scientific discipline must have completed a first-year chemistry course and be willing to work 40 hours a week in the USC Chemistry Department. Women and minorities generally underrepresented in the physical sciences are especially encouraged to apply.
Program participants work with USC researchers to design and synthesize new molecules and materials for use in “organic” – basically plastic and therefore relatively affordable -- photovoltaic technology. (“Photovoltaic” refers to the direct conversion of light into electricity.) In the process, students develop a first-hand understanding of the physical processes of energy capture, efficient energy conversion from sunlight to electricity and electrical charge collection.
The internship also touches on topics such as scientific ethics, implementing the scientific method in the research laboratory, and career opportunities for scientists and engineers, Brutchey said.
At the end of the summer, each participating student is required to deliver a 15-minute oral presentation on his or her research in front of USC faculty mentors as well as Cerritos College faculty and administrators.
By focusing on solar cell research, students also learn a great deal about nanoscience – a hot topic across a broad spectrum of cutting-edge chemistry and physics, according to Brutchey.
(“Nano” refers to the world of the very small and the manipulation of matter on the atomic or molecular scale. Matter often behaves differently at the nanoscale than it does on the scale of everyday life. Richard Feynman, the brilliant Caltech physicist, is generally credited with opening the gates to nanoscience and nanotechnology in his 1959 talk, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom: An Invitation to Enter a New Field of Physics.”)
“The program was a life-changing event for me,” said Joseph Mastron, who transferred to USC two years ago. “It was the best event of my life. I got to learn a lot, do a lot in the lab, and that shaped who I am today.”
Mastron, 22, will graduate this spring; he is currently working on applications to enter a Ph.D. program in physical chemistry, although he’s not sure where that will be. He said he plans on continuing his research into photovoltaics.
The Los Angeles Community College District claims LA and surrounding communities have one of the largest concentrations of community college students in the nation – roughly 250,000. Unfortunately, Brutchey notes, a recent survey of California community colleges revealed that too many students are failing to complete their studies. After six years, 80 percent of Latinos and 75 percent of African American students have not completed a community college certificate or degree.
James M. Gentile, former president and CEO of RCSA, one of the program’s funders, said outreach efforts such as USC’s are important for community college students struggling to earn science degrees. He stresses that such programs are also vital for the future security and prosperity of the nation.
“American demographics are changing, and meanwhile many other nations are going to great lengths to improve their science education as well as their basic research programs,” Gentile said. “If America hopes to remain first among equals in science and technology throughout the coming century, we simply must encourage more women and minorities to become scientists. Developing superb science education opportunities such as the one at USC is a cornerstone of that effort.”
RCSA’s Gentile said that encouraging undergraduate students to work with scientists such as Brutchey, Bradforth and Thompson in real-world research is the best way to create the next generation of American scientists. Incorporating students into working lab investigations teaches them how to think like scientists when facing the unknown; in addition, students working with scientists in advanced experimental settings generally have at least a two-year head start over other students learning from textbooks when it comes to acquiring the most up-to-date knowledge in a given field, Gentile said.
The effort is important because, as a national report issued this year noted, “in recent decades 50-85 percent of the growth in America’s GDP and two-thirds of its growth in productivity is attributable to advancements in just two fields: science and engineering.” In other words, America badly needs well- educated scientists and engineers.