Project ENGAGES - High School Education Program Not Your Typical Teenager Experience

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The first in a series of stories about Project ENGAGES, which begins its second year at the Petit Institute.

Katrina Burch will be a high school senior when the fall semester begins at Coretta Scott King Young Women's Leadership Academy, but she’s already got a year of college lab experience behind her with more to come.

“This isn’t the typical teenager experience,” says Burch, who is beginning her second year in Project ENGAGES, a high school education program created through the NSF Science and Technology Center on the Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems (EBICS, a research center that is supported and resides in the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience).

“This is nothing like working at a fast food restaurant,” Burch says. “I’m working on all of this expensive equipment, with researchers who depend on me to get my work done. And summertime is when they expect us students to really crank it out.”

Last summer, she was part of the inaugural class of Project ENGAGES (which stands for Engaging New Generations at Georgia Tech through Engineering and Science). Developed as a partnership between the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy and B.E.S.T. Academy, the program aims to raise awareness of students in economically-challenged, minority-serving public schools to the world of engineering, science and technology, while also improving the high schools’ current science education program.

This summer, Burch begins her second year in the program, a fully integrated member of Manu Platt’s lab in the Petit Institute. Meanwhile, a new group of high school students is nearing the end of their four-week ENGAGES boot camp, and moving into different labs, where they will receive real-world, hands-on experience under the guidance of Georgia Institute of Technology scientists and engineers.

Platt, assistant professor and Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Cancer Scholar at the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Bob Nerem, founding director of the Petit Institute (and Professor Emeritus in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering) co-founded Project ENGAGES as a natural offshoot of EBICS, a center comprised of a national network of top-flight institutions, including (among others) the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Morehouse College and the University of Georgia, in addition to Georgia Tech.

With an overarching mission to creating a new scientific discipline for building living, multi-cellular machines, EBICS (whose leaders are meeting in their fourth annual retreat this week, in Illinois) also places a heavy emphasis on diversity in all aspects as it strives to develop the next generation of researchers and leaders, people like Katrina Burch, who has set an ambitious, broad-minded goal, “to learn how to see the bigger picture of the world and do something great.”

Right now, she’d be content with being viewed as just another scientist in the lab, “and not just a high schooler.” Project ENGAGES demands a 40-hour work week from its high school students during the summer, and about 15 hours a week during the school year. So far, Burch has thrown herself into the work. “Katrina constantly impresses me with her enthusiasm and zeal for research,” says Kristi M. Porter, her mentor in the Platt lab.

Burch, who was born in North Carolina, grew up in Atlanta, raised by her mom, the only daughter with an older brother who is also a high school senior, and a younger brother who was born with a genetic disorder called di George syndrome. “It can take on many forms, but in my little brother’s case its meant organ failure, autism, developmental delays,” says Burch. “It’s different for every kid.”

Same could be said for formal education, she says – her older brother hasn’t decided if he wants to go to college yet, so Katrina could be the first person in her family to make that step. Then again, she says, “school has always been my thing,” and she’s narrowed her college choices to Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt and Florida A&M.

The Project ENGAGES experience – actually working, for a paycheck, in a university biotech lab – makes her feel like she understands what it takes to be a college student and it’s helped confirm something she says her teachers always told her, something she’s bought into. “Pay attention, do what you have to do, and people will pay you to come and learn. That’s what they said,” Burch recalls. “I feel like that’s the easiest route for me. I feel like that’s the smart route.”


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    Colly Mitchell
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    Fletcher Moore
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