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STEM fair projects lead to university research spots

They may be in Ann Arbor establishing roots as college freshman, but four 2018 East Kentwood High School graduates used their senior STEM Fair projects to gain acceptance into a prestigious University of Michigan research program.

Now, as research assistants in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, they are conducting research on the environment, anatomy and magnetics in outer space, while working alongside U of M researchers on an ongoing or new research project.

Science teacher Chad VanHouten, in back, challenges students to research topics they are interested in (courtesy Photo)

Last spring, students had the chance to pick their own topics and delve into research for the fair. AP Biology students Brady Strabel and Gabrielle Dykhouse partnered on a project on gene editing in bacteria; Emma Pinchak studied small crustaceans called isopods (think potato bugs) and their dexterity and speed. Dat Huynh researched optimal light intensity for aquatic plants.

“The goal of the STEM Fair is to provide an opportunity for students to do research that they are interested in, not necessarily research that we put on them,” said AP Biology teacher Chad VanHouten, who emphasized that giving students free reign of learning can lead to great things. “We have four kids this year that used their STEM Fair projects to get into this elite program, and it is research above and beyond their normal major.”

Dat Huynh presents a calculus project he did along with research on aquatic plants (courtesy photo)

Bringing Science to the Next Level

The students are now researching complex topics. Gabrielle, a neuroscience major, is studying technology related to cardiac electrophysiology (the electrical activity of the heart).

Giving students free reign of learning can lead to great things, says AP Biology teacher Chad VanHouten

She said her high school experience paved the way for her. “I wanted to pursue research in Michigan’s groundbreaking medical operations. My research experience definitely set me apart from the newbies and my (Advanced Placement course) content knowledge has made the college content transition very easy,” she said.

For UROP, Gabrielle interviewed with a Harvard medical school graduate cardiologist, now a U of M researcher, about his project with atrial defibrillation. She said the researcher told Gabrielle that her high school project set her apart.

“He basically said that out of his nine applicants mine stood out by far, and if I’m interested the position is mine.”

Emma, an environmental science major, is conducting global warming research in the area of forestry management. She said she was able to tell UROP program leaders about high school lab experience.

Emma Pinchak, right, tells an East Kentwood graduate about her research on isopods (courtesy photo)

“Nothing seems too difficult. I’m especially seeing overlap in examples of famous studies we talked about in (East Kentwood biology and environmental science classes), especially to do with pollution and ecology.”

Brady, who is considering computer science or aerospace engineering as majors, is working on the project involving devices that measure magnetic fields for extreme environments.

“We’re basically developing, packaging and deploying these new magnetometer systems around the poles and in space,” he said. “East Kentwood science exposed me to laboratory experience, helping me to identify my interest in research and strengthening my application for applying to research teams.”

The district’s annual fair is open to all STEM classes – middle school students have also participated – challenging students to make posters about the research they’ve done, from building robots to creating rat mazes. Students, parents and community members attend

“Kids are teaching kids, which we love,” VanHouten said.

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Science is Basically in Everything

Students present research on a variety of topics at the STEM Fair (courtesy photo)

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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