Program gives high school students chance to do hands-on lab work with faculty

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – As part of the State College Area High School Health Professionals Program, high school students have a unique opportunity to gain hands-on laboratory experience at Penn State thanks to a new program with the College of Health and Human Development.

Through the program, high school students can earn two non-degree credits at Penn State and two credits at State High by spending two semesters in a lab at University Park under the direction of a college faculty member. Tami Gilmour, a State High teacher for the Health Professionals Program, and Dennis Shea, associate dean for undergraduate programs and outreach at the college, coordinate the program.

“This was sort of natural to encourage high school students to think about research related to health care careers,” Gilmour said. “Students gain an appreciation for how scientists work, the kind of evidence you need to support a claim and how that evidence is collected. It also makes them stronger citizens and consumers of information.”

The program gives high school students the chance to explore opportunities for research in multidisciplinary fields.

“In the College of Health and Human Development, faculty examine problems and seek solutions from a variety of disciplinary perspectives -- life and health sciences, social and behavioral sciences, management and organization sciences, and more. Much of the most interesting research work is done in these collaborative teams of scientists,” Shea said. “By giving State College Area School District students a research experience in these exciting areas, we hope to open new doors for them in important areas like nutritional sciences, kinesiology, biobehavioral health, human development, health policy, communication sciences, neuroscience, and the huge field of services management in health, hospitality, and recreation, parks and tourism."

Madeleine Perry, a junior at State High, works with Sonia Cavigelli, associate professor of biobehavioral health, and lab manager Becky Crouse, in Chandlee Laboratory. There, Perry assists with a study that is analyzing why adolescents with asthma are twice as likely to develop anxiety or depression. Specifically, Perry assists with data collection and data entry in a study that looks at the effects of lung inflammation and labored breathing on adolescent mice brains and behavior development.

Data discussion

Madeleine Perry (right), a junior at State College Area High School, discusses data collection with lab manager Becky Crouse.

Image: Kevin Sliman

“This biomedical application could be huge. It seems like it would be so beneficial to so many people,” Perry said. “I was on the fence between pursuing a medical or veterinary career. This research has helped sway me toward medicine.”

Cavigelli has seen Perry grow during her time in the lab, including determining which career path to pursue.

“To be able to lop off options is pretty important. She has a more targeted and focused career pursuit,” Cavigelli said.

Crouse added, “I’ve been impressed with how comfortable she has become in the lab. Her confidence has grown, her ability to do things has improved, and her attitude has not changed. She is still positive. She still wants to learn.”

Not only does the high school program benefit the students, but it also benefits Penn State from a teaching perspective. By working with Perry, Cavigelli and Crouse said they have improved teaching and training approaches for Penn State students.

“It really helped me rethink what I’m doing with my undergraduate students,” Crouse said. “Through this program I am working to better undergraduates’ experience here.

Kaitlin Anderson, a State High senior, has been working with Kathleen Keller, Mark T. Greenberg Early Career Professor for the Study of Children's Health and Development, and assistant professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and the Department of Food Science.

Kaitlin Anderson

Kaitlin Anderson, a senior at State College Area High School, works with Kathleen Keller, Mark T. Greenberg Early Career Professor for the Study of Children's Health and Development, and assistant professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and the Department of Food Science, in a food behavior study at the Children’s Eating Behavior Laboratory in Chandlee Building. Anderson examines children’s responses to various food situations. The study tests the impact of food portion size and energy content on children's eating behavior and brain response.

Image: Kevin Sliman

Assisting Keller in a food behavior study at the Children’s Eating Behavior Laboratory in Chandlee, Anderson examines children’s responses to various food situations. The study tests the impact of food portion size and energy content on children's eating behavior and brain response.

Anderson said working in the lab with Keller and Ph.D. candidates helped teach her how to be more independent in her work and how to ask questions to perform tasks more accurately. She said these are important skills, especially as she prepares for college.

“I am learning how the research works in a professional environment,” Anderson said.

Anderson added she hopes to have the opportunity to continue to conduct research once in college.

For the study, children eat four test meals at the lab.

“Each meal serves an array of high calorie and low calorie foods that vary in portion size,” Keller said. “In addition, we are asking parents a number of questions about general child eating behaviors, activity level and feeding practices. On the last visit, children have a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan performed while they look at pictures of foods that vary in portion size and energy density.”

Researchers in the study are trying to identify parts of the brain that are involved with responding to differences in food portion size, as well as trying to determine how those brain mechanisms relate to eating behavior in the lab, Keller said.

Keller said Anderson is trained to do almost every aspect of the study, from taking basic height and weight with children to training children on how to remain still during their fMRI scan.

“This program gives high school students who are interested in health professions hands-on experience with clinical scientific research at a Research I university,” Keller said. “Learning about research in the classroom is one thing, but it's a very different process to actually work in a laboratory with graduate students and undergraduate students, as well as faculty members.”

Keller said students in the program learn firsthand all that goes into collecting, analyzing, publishing and contributing to scientific literature.

“The students are at a time in their lives when they are very impressionable, and working in this environment can be inspiring and motivating to them,” Keller said. “I have had high school students submit and present research at scientific meetings and publish their research in scientific journals. Having this first hand account of how research is done can give them a new appreciation and understanding of science. In addition, working with other college and graduate students helps these high school students gain confidence that they can apply their training in a professional environment.”

Keller has worked with high school students in the Intel Science Research program for more than 12 years. She said partnering with State College Area High School students is great way to reach out to the local community and generate interest in science, research and Penn State.

“We are looking forward to seeing Kaitlin progress in the future,” Keller said. “It's amazing to see students that I mentored when I first started out in my career grow and become professionals. Some are doctors, some are researchers and some are working in politics. Kaitlin has a world of possibilities at her fingertips and we are looking forward to following her career.”

In addition to assisting with lab research, students are required to keep a journal of their experiences, write a final paper about their work and then present their work to faculty members.

The program, in its first year, is expected to double in size for fall 2015 with eight students enrolled.

“The program is unique because the health professional sphere is so broad, from nurses aide, to sports medicine, to a nurse or doctor. Until now, there wasn’t a pathway for research. Many students do not get exposed to that aspect of the field,” Perry said.

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Last Updated March 04, 2016