Students conduct research in UTRGV’s HIGH Scholars program

BY Gail Fagan

Working alongside an astrophysicist at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley this summer, Jose Ortiz, a rising senior at Robert Vela High School in Edinburg, is learning all about star clusters and what they can tell researchers about stellar evolution.

“We are looking at their age, size, brightness and composition. We want to learn what affects these clusters,” he said.

Ortiz and two other area high school students are being mentored by Dr. Hyun-Chul Lee as part of the new UTRGV High School Scholars Program, initiated this summer at UTRGV.

The 10-week program – dubbed HIGH Scholars – engages high school students from the Rio Grande Valley in “real time” laboratory and research projects being conducted by university faculty on the Brownsville and Edinburg campuses, with the goal of promoting student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Dr. Parwinder Grewal, dean of the College of Science, said the HIGH Scholars program was modeled after a similar and very successful program he started at Ohio State University that resulted in numerous publications by its participants on the research they conducted.

“We want students to learn the art of doing research, but we also want the students to be engaged in real time research projects, not just mock laboratory experiments that you know the results of,” Grewal said. “It is the actual research that the scientists do. It is challenging, but it takes a student from not knowing about research and how it is done, to being excited about it and continuing to work on its original findings.”

The nearly 100 HIGH Scholars – all juniors, seniors or entering fall 2016 freshmen at UTRGV – are spending 25 hours a week in UTRGV’s research laboratories and field research facilities, working under the guidance of 48 faculty mentors, assisted by post-doctoral researchers or graduate students.

The scholars attend a weekly Lunch and Learn Session featuring presentations from faculty and Grewal on a wide range of topics designed to enhance student knowledge of the philosophy of science, ethics, scientific method, critical thinking, technical writing, scientific presentation, experimental design, data analysis and other professional development skills, including leadership and teamwork. Presenters also describe possible fields of study and career opportunities.

The program will conclude Aug. 6 with a symposium and poster competition, where the students will present their findings from an independent research project they proposed and worked on through the summer.

With Lee’s guidance, Ortiz will look at observational data collected from large telescopes worldwide and theoretical models that can be compared to the observational data. Ortiz will compare a 2008 model by Italian astronomers and a 2016 model created at Harvard; then they will figure out the impact of those different models when measuring the precise age and chemical composition of stars in the star clusters.

“The students are going to learn how science progresses and how scientists end up with conclusions,” Lee said. “Sometimes, scientists do the same thing over and over again until they find a breakthrough.”

Despite a current interest in pursuing engineering when he enters college, Ortiz said he might make a switch to physics after less than a month working with Lee.

“It is really interesting and opens up a new path for me,” he said.

Grewal wants students to know there are many options other than medicine or engineering for those interested in science, and said that hopefully, by exposing UTRGV’s facilities and professors to the students, some will stay here and continue their research as undergraduates.

“We want to give them their very first experience in research at UTRGV and put UTRGV on their résumé,” Grewal said.