Program helping spawn unlikely science scholars

There in a science class, wearing a white lab coat and cutting open a sheep heart, Jessie Vincoli remembered what it was she really wanted to do with her life.

The 16-year-old had given up earlier ambitions of being a cardiac surgeon or a cardiac nurse like her mom. She flunked the 10th grade at Cobb County’s Harrison High School and bombed her physics course – twice.

But this year, Jessie enrolled at the Cobb Performance Learning Center, a non-conventional school for students who want to graduate but haven't been successful in traditional high school. She was one of 11 from the center picked to participate this semester in the Kennesaw Science Program, where students visit the university and work with undergraduates on hands-on science experiments.

Now, Jessie is acing her science courses and once again considering a career in medicine.

“I thought if I did go to college it would be for a little while, I probably wouldn’t finish, I would end up failing,” she said. “I guess it’s the feeling of success: You feel motivated to do something with your life.”

At a time when educators are trying to figure out how to get more students interested in science and math fields, officials from the Performance Learning Center say their program is turning some of the district's lowest-performing students into college material.

Ninety-two percent of students who participated in the program’s inaugural session last spring have gone on to some form of post-secondary education, said Principal Jacquelyn Whitt.

It’s also providing a boost to science test scores – 80 percent of students who participated in the program passed the science portion of the graduation test, compared to 50 percent of students schoolwide, Whitt said.

"One of the reasons in this country we have such a shortage in the areas of math and science is because we don’t start cultivating that interest and that burning desire to excel in those areas at an early age,” she said.

Whitt started the program along with longtime friend and colleague Army Lester, a professor of biology at Kennesaw State University. Lester secured a grant from the Georgia Space Grant Consortium to pay for the materials and small stipends of $250-$350 for 10 Kennesaw students. The Cobb high school puts forward about $1,200 for transportation, lab coats and lunch.

Students travel to the campus once a week during the six-week session and conduct experiments led by Kennesaw students. Beyond science, the program is designed to help students build relationships with undergraduates so they can ask questions about college and visualize themselves living campus life.

The partnership also benefits the college students, Lester said, because it helps reinforce what the undergraduates are learning.

"Some of our fellows are also saying, ‘I never thought about teaching. Teaching is cool,'" he said.

Organizers now hope to expand the program to include both more students and more fields of study.