Faculty Make a Difference with Mentor Connection

Over the summer, a number of engineering faculty members and associates hosted high school juniors and seniors from across the world, welcoming them into research labs and providing mentorship that may nurture future engineering leaders. The 12-year old summer program, called the UConn Mentor Connection (MC), brings 70-75 students to campus each year for a three-week learning opportunity in labs spanning the UConn campus. This year, Drs. John Enderle, Ali Gokirmak and Helena Silva of Electrical & Computer Engineering; Drs. Richard Parnas and Yong Wang of Chemical, Materials & Biomolecular Engineering; Dr. Daniel Goberman of the Institute of Materials Science; and Dr. Zbigniew Bzymek of Mechanical Engineering hosted MC students.

The Engineering faculty immersed MC students in a range of fascinating projects, from the design of a heart signal recorder or a spy microphone to explorations involving synthesis and physical and mechanical processing of the advanced materials.

Mentor Connection (MC) is the brainchild of Dr. Joseph Renzulli, director of the Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development. While serving on a special White House commission, Dr. Renzulli met with talented individuals across a breadth of fields. He heard first-hand how strong mentoring had positively impacted the successful trajectory of these individuals; he took the message home to Storrs and started Mentor Connection as a means to provide high school students with exceptional learning opportunities in research labs and under the tutelage of talented faculty mentors.

Since its inception, MC has provided a unique learning experience to nearly 900 high school students from various socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. According to Dr. Richard Parnas, who has hosted four students since 2006, the learning goes both ways. He commented that the program has helped him train his graduate students to become better teachers and also helped to further his research program in materials science, which was the focus of his MC unit. “Mentor Connection students are superb – very bright, very engaged, very eager,” he commented. The students have worked with Dr. Parnas’ graduate students, Jing Dong, Yatin Patil, Matt Boucher and Sudsiri Hemsri on projects that included shaping and testing wheat protein-based plastics, taking water measurements within Nafion membranes, and conducting biodiesel testing. This summer, Dr. Parnas and his students hosted Jae Hyun Kim of Korea, who helped to make composites of wheat protein and alumina particles by synthesizing special silane coupling agents.

Dr. Yong Wang hosted three MC students this year for the first time and echoed Dr. Parnas’s assessment. “This program is good for training high school students. It allows them to gain hands-on training, and it lets graduate students learn how to train younger scholars.” In his laboratory, the high school students were mentored by graduate student Jing Zhou, who oversaw their efforts involving cell culture and protein separation.

The “safe diving pool problem” was among the projects tackled by MC students participating in Dr. Zbigniew Bzymek’s invention unit. An MC faculty mentor since 2000, Dr. Bzymek has hosted between three and six students each summer, and several have enrolled in UConn engineering following their MC experience. “I am teaching them how to solve conflicting problems in technology and conceptual engineering design,” he explained. In the safe diving pool conceptual design challenge, students calculated and experimentally checked the strength of the surface tension, and learned that by introducing some means of breaking it – for example, air bubbles along the surface – the pool is safer for divers.

An important aspect of the program is the inclusion of students from diverse backgrounds and economic means. Dr. Catherine Little, an assistant professor of Educational Psychology and one of two MC program coordinators, said “We are extremely proud of the numbers of students from a variety of cultural and economic backgrounds we’ve been able to serve; the number of students from our program who have subsequently applied to and been accepted at UConn; and individual stories of students whose Mentor Connection experience has helped to shape their future work – including one former MC participant who is now pursuing advanced degrees in engineering built on the work she did with Dr. Harris Marcus years ago.”

About 80% of the MC participants come from Connecticut, according to Dr. Little. She adds that “For the last two years we have had students from the Korea Science Academy in South Korea, and we have also had a few students from Australia. Recently, we have had students from California, South Dakota, and Wisconsin as well as nearer states like Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. We strive to provide the opportunity to students from priority districts in Connecticut, such as Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven.”

The cost to participating students ($3,100 in 2008) can be daunting for many families, so financial assistance is provided for students from low-income families. Dr. Little said that the Connecticut Department of Education and various foundations across the state provide financial support; typically more than half of the MC participants receive full or partial scholarships.

To learn more about Mentor Connection, please contact Dr. Catherine Little at 860-486-2754 or catherine.little@uconn.edu, or Dr. Heather Spottiswoode at 860-486-0283 or heather.spottiswoode@uconn.edu.