Science academy urges kids to go to college

Balloon experiment
Students Tim Murphy and Yee Yang blow up balloons in an experiment to measure their lung capacity.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

In a science lab in Bloomington, a couple dozen teenagers are blowing up balloons in an experiment to measure their lung capacity. They're learning about the human body at Northwestern Health Sciences University, a school that focuses on alternative medicine such as chiropractic care, acupuncture and massage. And while the students are clearly having fun, they're also learning some basic math and science.

"Does anybody know what Pi is?" asks instructor Glori Hinck. Several students yell out the answer, 3.14.

"Woo hoo," Hinck cheers.

Northwestern began its summer science academy three years ago, after noticing that few students of color were going into alternative medicine. One of the program's creators is Tolu Oyelowo, who teaches at Northwestern. She said the program aims to recruit students of color, and those who would be the first generation in their family to go to college.

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Hua Yang, far right, is a college student who mentors students attending the science academy. She's helping Norah Harper-Godderz.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

"What the research suggested was that if we could get them as eighth graders, and those with some kind of interest in science or math, the likelihood that they would go to college would be higher," said Oyelowo. "And so we go into eighth grade classrooms, and we talk to their teachers, and we ask them not necessarily for their best students, but for students who with a little bit of mentoring, would be more likely to go to college."

The academy draws mostly from schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Students selected for the academy can attend for up to four summers for free, and they're matched with mentors who keep in touch with them throughout the school year.

One of the mentors is Hua Yang, a student at Northwestern who's studying acupuncture and Chinese medicine. Yang said the two students she mentored last year loved the program, and both are doing well in school. She said they have plenty of questions about college.

"One of my students, she was struggling with the idea...if I go to college, what does that mean? Money? What kind of scholarships? Where can I go? Do I go to a community college or a four-year college? What does that mean to where you were at? How did you get involved with coming to a school like this and getting your master's degree? What does that take to get where you are?" Yang said. "And so it gives them the opportunity to ask those kind of questions."

Juniors Sarai Roman, Cierra Muse and Laura Mushie listen to career advice during the Science Academy.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Organizers of the science academy stress that the program is mainly designed to encourage students to go to college. But it's clear that Northwestern would welcome them to this campus if they decide to pursue careers in alternative medicine. One of the students back for a third year is thinking about just that.

"Being here makes me think about being a chiropractor," said Cierra Muse, who will be a junior at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis this fall.

Muse wants to do something in the medical field, and said she'll be the first person in her family to go to college. Muse thinks the science academy is fun.

"They showed me a lot of cool stuff," Muse said. "We've been to museums and everything. We went to Body World last year."

Muse has also gotten to know all the teachers at the science academy, since she's attended from the beginning.

"I like seeing the people I saw last year," said Muse. "Everybody was so happy to see me, I felt so special."

Northwestern officials say they plan to continue the program, which costs them about $1000 per student. They've received some grant money to fund the science academy, and hope to get support from businesses that want to encourage more students to go into math and science careers.