Focusing on the future

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The Aim High Science & Technology Academy prepared high school students for college—and beyond.

With authority, Aundriana Lopez walked up to a table in a science lab in Rowan’s James Hall, plunked down her black-framed, Buddy Holly-type glasses, and peered confidently into a microscope.

“Detective Lopez,” the Pennsauken resident declared, “is on the case.”

With that, Lopez got to work trying to solve a mock crime—a “homicide” staged in a classroom—by analyzing hair samples taken from the scene. Her CSI-type work was part of an Integrated World Science class presented through Rowan University’s second annual Aim High Science & Technology Academy.

For four weeks this summer, 40 high school students from the five-county area participated in an array of activities in Aim High designed to address their academic development, personal/social skills and their career aspirations.

Funded through a three-year, $153,284 grant from the Commission on Higher Education, with additional funding from Rowan’s College of Education and the Camden campus, the Aim High students received instruction in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) while also participating in workshops and activities to develop their leadership and college preparation skills. The program is open to students who come from low-income households or who are first-generation college students.

The mock crime scene—which included hair, DNA, and blood evidence that students had to analyze in order to solve the “whodunit”—was developed and taught by Amanda McGeehan and Joe Kuppler, both of whom graduated from Rowan in May with their education and science degrees.

“Leading up to this, they had four days of forensics training—DNA, fingerprints, toxicology, blood typing and hair analysis,” said Kuppler, who will begin his teaching career at Kingsway High School in the fall.

“We wanted to take the glamour out of crime scene investigation and give them the real skills,” added McGeehan, who landed a teaching position at Cherry Hill High School West. “We wanted them to think like scientists—and to have the evidence to support their theories.”

In addition to the Integrated World Science class, students also: studied environmental science in a "natural resources" course; explored careers in technology-related fields; studied various disciplines in engineering; and elevated their critical thinking during challenging math classes.

Many of the courses required students to utilize technology—and even create their own videos—to showcase their work.

Beyond academics

But the program goes beyond academics to help students gain the skills they need to succeed in a collegiate environment, according to Project Coordinator Kara Ieva, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Services, Administration and Higher Education in Rowan’s College of Education. Aim High participants volunteered for 20 hours of service learning and participated in comprehensive leadership development exercises and career development workshops, Ieva noted. Students lived in Rowan’s residence halls Monday-Friday for the four weeks.

After completing assessments tied to their own career and college planning, analyzing their interests, personalities, skills and values, students even developed their own career action plans.

Planning for the future

The mock crime scene had Doel Rodriguez, a student at the Pennsauken campus of the Technical Schools of Camden County, thinking about his own future aspirations.

“I imagine myself doing this as a career,” he said as he methodically collected evidence at the scene.

Other students realized forensics isn’t for them. But college, they agreed, is.

“Getting away from my family has been good for me,” said Schalick High School sophomore Alexis Penn, an aspiring speech therapist. “Through this, I realized I want to go away to school, just not as far away as I thought.”

Penn lauded the team-building and character- and confidence-building exercises, which are key components of the Aim High experience.

“The best part for me is that I’ve become more confident in speaking to others,” she said. “We’ve become an extended family,” she said.

Mentoring

That’s music to the ears of Donavan McCargo, co-principal investigator for the Aim High grant and director of student services and EOF at Rowan at Camden. McCargo, who studies mentoring, said Aim High succeeds in bringing together like-minded college-bound students who share similar goals.

“There is great value in peer-to-peer mentoring,” McCargo said. “They rely on each other in the program and outside of it. It makes a real difference for them, especially for our first-generation students. When they get to college, they’re comfortable and confident.”

Aim High offered growth opportunities for Rowan students as well, Ieva noted. In what she called a “tri-level” of mentorship, Aim High students learned from and—interacted with—undergraduate and graduate students, as well as Rowan faculty members.

“One of the unique aspects of the program was the cross generation of students and faculty,” Ieva said.

While Aim High gave recent students like McGeehan and Kuppler the opportunity to apply their undergraduate teacher training, graduate students in Rowan’s Counseling and Educational Settings program ran group counseling meetings with the students four times each week. All students worked with Aim High participants under faculty supervision.

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