By TRACY NEWMAN AND KENDRA WATT ABAIDOO, ECBCMarch 31, 2009
A senior at Aberdeen High School's Science and Mathematics Academy is putting the final touches on the senior capstone project he must complete in order to graduate, but it wouldn't have been possible without the help of a scientist at the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center.
As 17-year-old Stephen Sanner nears the end of his senior year he credits his success in the lab - the development of a waterproof and fade-resistant ink for use in a ballpoint or roller ball pen - to his mentorship with Way Fountain, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at ECBC.
"The best thing about the SMA program is working with a professional scientist," Sanner said. "Doctor Fountain's years of experience have been an invaluable resource for me. Mentoring has further expanded my interest in a career in science."
Launched in 2004, the SMA grew out of a concept proposed by the Army Alliance and other science professionals associated with Aberdeen Proving Ground. Through the use of federal, state and local funds, organizers have created a high-level learning environment that offers students the opportunity to study robotics, cryptology, biotechnology and genetics, all with an emphasis on research and real-world applications.
Now in its fifth year, 43 of SMA's 188 students have been paired with mentors from the professional science and engineering community.
For Fountain, the motivation of serving as an SMA mentor stems from his desire to see ECBC's successes carried over to future generations.
"After teaching at West Point for a number of years, I realized the impact that mentorship has on students," Fountain said. "Mentorship allows scientists and engineers to teach students real science. We all have a stake in ensuring that we have a strong bench of scientists to work at Aberdeen Proving Ground."
With an aging federal work force, the importance of fostering an interest in science, engineering and mathematics among students has increased substantially.
"We want students to know that studying science and engineering is interesting and could lead to a career with the federal government," Fountain added.
Admitted into the SMA in the ninth grade, Sanner's early interest in chemistry is reflected in this senior capstone project that resulted in the creation of an archival ink.
"I was first interested in ink because I was interested in chemistry at the time," Sanner said. "I have always preferred applied science as opposed to pure science. It was natural that I would then choose something that was a combination of the two."
With his mentor's guidance, Sanner analyzed ink samples using a water solubility test that required placing a sample in water while conducting a fading test using an ultraviolet light.
"The traditional ink formulae I'm working on are based on traditional inks which, in their traditional form are unusable in modern pens," Sanner said. "I am searching for a way to adapt these inks, which are based on colloidal pigments suspended in water, to modern pens."
The experiments serve as an introduction to the scientific method for students who are asked to formulate a hypothesis based on the information, test the hypothesis with experimentation and then accept, reject or come up with an alternate hypothesis based on the results.
"The most important aspect of this program and mentorship is exposing students to the scientific process," Fountain said. "I want to foster a desire to become a professional scientist."
While prospective mentors may have concern about their ability to commit enough time to their students, Fountain insists that successful relationships can be fostered through both electronic and in-person communication. In the end, he said, the benefits of mentoring are not reserved for the student alone.
"Stephen and I communicate a great deal virtually," Fountain said. "However, I mentor in spite of the challenges because it has kept me engaged in basic research. A mentor can do as much learning as the student."
To build upon the success of the mentor relationship between the SMA student and one of its top scientists, ECBC will host an employee luncheon April 2, that will highlight the SMA, Joppatowne High School's Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Program and other future mentoring opportunities. During the event, Sanner will be among a small group of students who will discuss their senior capstone projects.
Sanner and other SMA students also will showcase their experiments and results for parents, mentors and the general public during the "Gallery Walk of Senior Capstone Projects,"open house which will be held, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., May 19, at the SMA, 251 Paradise Road, Aberdeen.
In the fall, Sanner will take the knowledge he gained during his time at the SMA to Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., where he has yet to decide on a major.
"Since beginning the program, my interests have shifted towards electronics, because of exposure in elective classes offered at the SMA," Sanner said. "I still have some interest in chemistry."
For more information about mentoring opportunities at the SMA, contact Donna Clem, 410-273-5500.