Seeing Chemistry Solve Real-World Problems Inspires High School Students

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October 21 – 27, 2018, is National Chemistry Week, an annual American Chemical Society (ACS) event to build awareness of chemistry concepts at the local level—something we at USC Viterbi Adopt-a-School, Adopt-a-Teacher (VAST) can really get behind!

As the research branch of USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s K-12 STEM outreach, VAST is marking National Chemistry Week by highlighting the contributions of our engineering researchers to chemistry education in the SoCal area. Through VAST, connections between the cutting-edge STEM research conducted at USC Viterbi and local area K-12 students are forged and fostered.

ACS recognizes the importance of these connections through the ACS Project SEED Program, which pairs economically disadvantaged high school students with real scientists serving as mentors in real laboratories. USC Viterbi VAST offers a similar summer program called SHINE, or Summer High School Intensive in Next-Generation Engineering, which pairs high school students in USC Viterbi engineering labs.

Several USC Viterbi labs in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science participated in SHINE 2018, spending seven weeks training research-oriented high school students to participate and contribute to their labs’ research that applies fundamental chemistry concepts to solve pressing real world problems. In the words of one of these participating students, “I have always enjoyed learning about chemistry, but my experience with SHINE revealed to me how important it is in real life applications. I loved having the experience and understanding of how research being conducted at such high levels still used these basic concepts in ways I never thought of before.”

One such innovative application is the use of supercomputing to revolutionize chemical engineering today, a topic explored in a SHINE workshop by USC Viterbi and SHINE Professor Shaama Sharada. In her talk, Professor Sharada drew upon the work she pursues in her computational research lab, which uses supercomputing to understand and predict chemical pathways. She shared her lab this summer with Ruoshan Dong, who was mentored by PhD student Zhenzuo Lan on a project that explored the use of machine learning to predict chemical properties.

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Professor Shaama Sharada with SHINE Students

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Dr. Kaori Noridomi with SHINE Students

In Professor Richard Roberts’ Chemical Engineering lab this summer, postdoctoral fellow Dr. Kaori Noridomi saw firsthand the benefits of university research to teaching chemistry concepts to high school students. “Learning in textbooks can be very limited,” Noridomi said: “high school students have classrooms in which they learn, but they don't get to apply the concepts,” especially to the extent necessary for lab research. During the SHINE experience, for instance, Dr. Noridomi’s high school mentees Skyler and Chloe learned the precision and care needed to make the transition from the textbook to the lab bench. She emphasized to her students that lab technicians need to embed built-in checks of their progress and calculations while they work.

Dr. Noridomi used the SHINE lab experience to teach her students “to not be afraid of making mistakes.” Instead, she advised them to treat mistakes as opportunities for learning and collaboration. By learning from their own mistakes, each other’s mistakes, and ultimately even her mistakes, Dr. Noridomi fostered in her SHINE students  increased understanding of not only chemistry fundamentals but also the collaborative nature of university research. Dr. Noridomi herself embodies this nature: she earned her Ph.D. in Chemistry from USC Dornsife while working in Lin Chen’s Molecular and Computational Biology lab and is now a postdoctoral scholar in the Roberts Research lab, part of the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering at USC Viterbi.

Biomedical innovations based in chemistry also animated the research experience for other SHINE students. The research in regenerative medicine conducted by USC Viterbi Professor of Biomedical Engineering Eun Ji Chung, for example, pioneers the use of 3D printed structures composed of proteins and carbohydrates to image, treat, and regenerate diseased or damaged tissue that commonly occurs in cases of atherosclerosis, cancer, and kidney diseases. The SHINE students also learned from Professor Christina Zavaleta, a colleague of Dr. Chung’s in the collaborative USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience. The “ZLab” presentation emphasized that chemistry is the basis of the ground-breaking innovations to target and treat life threatening diseases like cancer.

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Professor Christina Zavaleta with SHINE Students 

Workforce champions, including the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, recognize the importance of chemistry research for Southern California. The Chamber sponsored the internship of a student at Huntington Park Institute of Applied Medicine in the SHINE lab of Professor Nicholas Graham of USC Viterbi Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. The Chamber is part of California’s Linked Learning Alliance, a statewide coalition of education, industry, and community organizations dedicated to improving California’s high schools and preparing students for future success in college, their careers, and life.

To learn more about National Chemistry Week in your area, we urge you to visit this website, which includes tips on getting involved for all ages, including educational resources, contests, scholarships and events. The ACS website also contains many resources for chemistry enthusiasts at any level, from kindergarten to high school and beyond, to undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate research. Chemical reactions need something to get started, a catalyst of some sort – let National Chemistry Week get students, teachers, and families inspired about the value of chemistry to improving lives, treating diseases, and opening future college and career pathways.

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