UNIVERSITY CENTER — Ever since a plastics engineer visited her high school sophomore science class, Mallory Benkert has known she wants to become a chemist.
Thanks to Saginaw Valley State University, The Dow Chemical Co. Foundation and a summertime experience she says she won’t soon forget, Benkert (pictured above) took a giant step forward toward reaching that goal.
A senior at Nouvel Catholic Central High School in Saginaw Township, Benkert was one of 21 high school students from the region to participate in SVSU’s Dow Science and Sustainability Education Center’s summer research program. The initiative is the result of a partnership between Dow Chemical Co. Foundation and SVSU, whose faculty, laboratories and classrooms played host to the program’s research projects in July and August.
“The Dow Science & Sustainability Education Center is a great opportunity to engage students in real-life experiments and to foster excitement about STEM,” said Heather Gallegos, community relations leader for Dow’s Michigan Operations. “Dow understands how crucial it is to improve the quality of science, technology, engineering and math education available to students, and to help them realize the opportunities that STEM skills provide.”
The education center aims to increase interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) among K-12 students in the region. For Benkert, it worked.
“I enjoyed this so much,” she said of the experience. “I’ve learned so much in the time that I’ve spent here. It’s prepared me for what is to come when I go to college.”
Along with Benkert’s high school peers, 10 K-12 teachers and 10 SVSU students also participated in the Dow Science and Sustainability Education Center program. The group split into six teams, each tackling a different research project with the help of six SVSU faculty members.
Jennifer Chaytor, SVSU assistant professor of chemistry, led the research for Benkert’s group. They explored methods of removing phosphates from water. Phosphates are inorganic chemicals that can form the slimy “muck” that plagues some of the region’s beaches, including one at the Bay City State Park.
Chaytor’s group contributed to research that could provide valuable information about the use of inexpensive, natural materials as a method of removing phosphates. Their effort involved extensive research in SVSU’s laboratories.
Their research also involved real discovery — the synthesis of new compounds for the removal of phosphates — rather than following learning exercises where the answers generally are already known.
Jesse Place, who recently accepted a job as a teacher at T.L. Handy Middle School in Bay City, was impressed with the education and experience he received while working in Chaytor’s group.
“This is truly science,” he said. “Science isn’t just about a neat little experiment. It’s about discovering, and wanting to discover and try new things. They aren’t going to get this type of experience in high school.”
Place, a 2013 chemistry education graduate from SVSU, said he can apply some of the lessons learned over the summer to one of the classes he will teach: STEM Exploration, a new course offered in the middle school’s curriculum.
“A lot of what I learned I will be able to share with my students,” said Place, who will teach sixth, seventh and eighth graders. “The (Dow Science and Sustainability Education Center) experience really prepared me for this job.”
And it allows access to SVSU’s laboratories and equipment.
Katie McMahon, who graduated in June from Midland’s H.H. Dow High School and remains enrolled at SVSU through the Great Lakes Bay Early College program, said the high-tech equipment has given her experience with the sort of tools available to professional researchers.
“It’s a lot different than what you’d see in chemistry class in high school,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot here, and it’s been very fun.”
Benkert agreed. Part of the Dow Science and Sustainability Education Center program’s appeal was that it exposed students interested in science to other students interested in science, she said.
“In high school, chemistry is required, and so not everyone is as interested in it as I am,” Benkert said. “Everyone here is really interested in what we’re doing. That makes everything more fun and more engaging.”
For SVSU students such as Nicholas Toupin, it means gaining experience in research while also serving as a mentor to students. Toupin, a biochemistry major from Dearborn, said he plans to pursue a career as a professor.
“The students here like to learn and I have the knowledge, so it’s a good fit,” he said.
Chaytor said she hopes the summer experience encouraged its high school student participants to pursue a career in the sciences.
“They’re getting experience they wouldn’t get in high school,” Chaytor said. “It’s very exciting to see their reactions in this environment.”
(In the photo above, Mallory Benkert, a student at Nouvel Catholic Central High School, conducts research in an SVSU lab as part of the Dow Science and Sustainability Education Center. Photo by Mike Randolph, SVSU.)