Searching For The Next Generation of Scientists

May 1, 1998

Mark Miester

In 1979, Dan Schwartz was a junior at Horace Mann High School in New York with a gift for science and no clear idea of what to do with it when he enrolled in a special science program taught by faculty at Columbia University. That ended up making all the difference.

"It really gave me insight as to what [a life in science] was like and made teaching and research seem not so impossible," says Schwartz, today an assistant professor of chemistry. "When the time came later on to think about a career, I saw that as a way to go."

Today, Schwartz is hoping a new program he's spearheading will have the same effect on New Orleans-area high school students. By organizing the Tulane University Science Scholars Program, Schwartz hopes to give area high school students a taste of the scientist's life, linking gifted students with Tulane faculty teaching anything from laser technology to coastal biogeochemistry.

"The idea is for faculty researchers to share their field of interest with the students," Schwartz explains. "We're looking at students who really are prospective scientists. This is the next generation who will fill our shoes."

While outreach programs that target disadvantaged or minority students exist, Schwartz says this is the only program he knows of aimed specifically at future scientists. Each semester, Science Scholars Program students will pick one of several six- or 12-week courses. Classes will meet on Saturday mornings. The focus of the courses, which will change each semester, will be left to the faculty member teaching it.

The program, which kicks off in September, is free, and Schwartz intends to admit only about 50 of the most gifted science students in the area each semester to maximize the interaction between students and faculty members. Schwartz first started to consider organizing the program last summer. He called a few high school teachers in the area to gauge their reaction and then talked to about a dozen faculty members in different departments. All were enthusiastic.

"When I started talking to them about it, they immediately took the ball and ran with it," Schwartz says. "It was then that I realized that if I could just organize it the creativity of the faculty would take over."

With a partial grant from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation and a two-year commitment from liberal arts and sciences dean Teresa Soufas, Schwartz began recruiting in March. He sent letters inviting teachers at 140 area high schools--essentially all schools within an hour's drive of Tulane--to nominate students for the program. Schwartz will select students on the basis of teacher evaluations, grades, an application essay, and performance on a placement exam. Selectivity, Schwartz says, is the key to making the program work.

"My primary concern is to have a group of students who are really motivated and interested," he says. "This is going to thrive on their interests, so I think that's what's going to make it really fun for the students and the teachers."

To recruit faculty to teach in the program, Schwartz sent out a letter to Tulane faculty in science, engineering and medicine that conduct research. Participating faculty will receive a nominal stipend, but Schwartz says there are better reasons for faculty to sacrifice their Saturday mornings.

"For me it's the opportunity to work with smart, highly motivated kids," says Schwartz. "We're looking at students who really are prospective scientists. Like the Columbia program, this program is a feeder for scientists, and for professors interested in education that ought to be something attractive."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000