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Scholars and educators across the country have noted that large universities focus so many of their resources on graduate students that it’s hard for undergraduates to get research experience. At Denison, however, programs like the Young Scholar Awards and Anderson Research Assistantships enable undergraduates to do intensive research—in Joe Reczek’s lab, even high school students get in on the fun.

For the last three years, Denison’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry has co-sponsored STEMfest, a competition put on by The Works, a Newark museum with an emphasis on interactive learning. Every year, contest sponsors (including Reczek, an assistant professor of chemistry) pose a challenge designed to get local middle and high school students thinking about how to apply science, technology, engineering, and math to real-world problems. Area students then form groups to research the problem and propose a solution, and winners are chosen based on their scientific accuracy, results, aesthetics, and a presentation they deliver to a live audience and panel of judges. In 2012, for example, participants were tasked with addressing the global crisis in access to clean water by creating effective household water treatment systems out of simple materials.

Two years ago, Reczek started offering STEMfest participants the opportunity to apply for a paid internship in his lab. An organic chemist, he works to generate new materials for solar energy. Giving high school students the chance to engage in that kind of meaningful research is a great way to motivate them and encourage their interest in science, he explains.

Offering the internship wasn’t so much a conscious decision as a natural outgrowth of his work as a scientist and educator, and although funding the program could be a challenge in the future, he hopes to continue partnering with The Works and involving high school students in his research. Providing opportunities like this matters deeply to him, he says, because “I believe very strongly in the transformative power of education.”

Incoming first-year student, Matthew Reddy of Pataskala, Ohio, can attest firsthand to that transformative power. He decided to attend Denison after interning with Reczek last summer. “I never knew anything at all about solar energy or how it works,” he admits. And although he had many interests, “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life.” But his research experience with Reczek inspired a passion for a field to which he previously hadn’t given much thought.

“After the internship, my mind was made up,” he recalls. “I wanted to attend Denison, major in chemistry, continue on researching with Joe Reczek, later return to grad school for chemical engineering, and end with a job at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory researching characteristics of solar cells.”

“I have always wanted a job helping people,” Reddy says, “But I never want to quit learning.” Thanks to Reczek, he now has a much clearer vision for how he can do both.

 

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