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Aspiring scientists get hands on lesson at UTPA
Posted: 05/23/2013
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Cynthia Duran has always been interested in the healing powers of medicine. The 16-year-old plans to become a biomedical engineer, and someday improve prescription medication.

A UTPA student in the Elliott Chemical Society performs a demonstration to high school students during the third annual Physical Science Days, held on campus May 20-21, 2013.

"Being able to see Tylenol being made and the outline of how it is done was just amazing to me," the Edinburg North High School student said. "This gives me confidence to pursue the career I want."

High school students like Duran, fascinated with fields related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) got a hands-on look at the disciplines during The University of Texas-Pan American's third annual Physical Science Days May 20-21.

More than 300 11th grade students from the Edinburg and Weslaco Consolidated Independent School Districts watched UTPA faculty members perform experiments that explain how physics, chemistry and related sciences are used to tackle global problems. The students took part in some of the demonstrations as well.

"It's impressive that UTPA offers events and opportunities like this," Duran said. "It gives me a step in the right direction for my future and it is good to know what programs are available to me."

Two years ago, UT Pan American's Departments of Physics and Geology and Chemistry began organizing the event as a way to encourage high school students to pursue careers in the STEM fields. During the two-day conference, students saw the effects of black holes during a presentation in the planetarium, learned about fossil fuels and renewable energy, and got an introduction to the field of geology. Edinburg High School student Valeria Rivera, who plans to follow in her father's footsteps and become an architectural engineer, said she was impressed by the experience.

"It shows us a little more in-depth what we might be getting into," Rivera said. "In a few hours I learned about the visible spectrum, magnetic fields, the earth's core, and even about astronomy. It helps because we learn about the programs and requirements and motivates us to pursue science and math, which is what our country needs."

Rivera and her peers got to hear about what science programs UTPA has to offer, as well as degree plans that prepare students to become teachers in the STEM fields. The teenagers also learned about scholarship opportunities to help them pay for their education.

High school students look on with awe at UTPA students demonstrate chemical reactions during the University's third annual Physical Science Days held on campus May 20-21, 2013.

"I really enjoyed the chemistry demonstrations and how everything about the science program was explained in detail," Rivera said. "A lot of kids don't have that support at home. They don't know about the science fields so this guides us."

Dr. Liang Zeng, associate professor of physics at UTPA, said there is a tremendous need for professionals in the STEM fields, particularly physics. Unfortunately, Zeng said, this type of science is foreign to many students.

"School science teachers and coordinators told us that the students don't even know what physicists do and therefore there is a lack of interest in studying physics in high school," said Zeng. "We bring them to campus and have them visit labs, engage in activities and interact with our current physics, chemistry and physical science majors to hopefully raise their interest."

Zeng said she hopes Physical Science Days will broaden the high school students' horizons.

"This event may help them change their perspective about what majors they go into and what kind of jobs they can get. They discover the talent and opportunities in the STEM areas." Zeng said. "We have great students involved in our programs, but we would like more students to get enrolled in these disciplines."

Next year, Zeng said, she and other UTPA faculty members would like to expand the event to include four school districts. Duran endorses the idea.

"It's a great chance for students to learn about science and math in a totally different way," she said.

See more of the Physical Science Days activities in this photo gallery.