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Sciences attack declining trend

High employment, aggressive recruiting and high salary levels. Despite these incentives, the number of incoming students pursuing college degrees in science and math is insufficient to meet workforce demands in the United States. Nothing new there; that trend has been going on for years, even at Washington State University. To make matters worse, those numbers diminish strongly as incoming freshman come face-to-face with the rigors of college courses.

But WSU’s College of Sciences is not sitting idly by, hoping the trend will reverse itself. Last year, it identified a strong offensive recruiting weapon in its arsenal and has begun to deploy it statewide — enter Ron Newton, a lab tech in chemistry, and Tom Johnson, a lab tech in physics.

Newton and Johnson — in the spirit of Bill Nye the Science Guy, Beakman’s World and Newton’s Apple

— demonstrate the wonders of chemistry, physics and science principles to high school and junior high students throughout the state. The result: more students are applying for admission to the College of Sciences.

This recruiting effort is nothing new for Newton, who began working with the chemistry teacher at Mead High School in Spokane 19 years ago. After a bit of success, he wondered, “Why am I sticking to just one school?” and expanded the program to Cheney, Ferris and others.

Some participating schools come to Pullman, where students tackle college-level experiments and utilize sophisticated equipment, normally unavailable to them, plus see demonstrations by Newton. In addition, Newton has been able to supply participating schools with surplus equipment.

Newton also travels to middle and high schools throughout the state where he puts on 60- to 90-minute demonstrations, designed to rate high on the Wow! scale — inflating and exploding balloons with liquid nitrogen, demonstrating hovercrafts, making superconductors using liquid nitrogen and magnets, creating solids out of liquids, etc.

It’s a lot of fun,” said Newton. “I do experiments and talk about careers, how to get better prepared for college and the importance of good GPA and SAT scores. I also emphasize the importance of math, math and more math. It appears to be very effective.”

The number of Cheney High School graduates enrolling in science-related classes at WSU has grown from two or less to about 10-11 students per year, he said, and similar trends are true at Ferris and Mead.

Mary Guenther, a recruitment specialist in the Department of Physics and Astronomy who makes school arrangements and presents with Newton, said the number of freshmen students coming into physics has doubled over the past couple years.

Realizing the potential, the College of Sciences has provided Newton with funding to expand the program statewide. He expects to make presentations to more than 60 schools by the end of the calendar year, including many in central and western Washington. He has been delegated the authority to give out fifteen $1,000 to $2,000 scholarships to students at participating schools.

Laura Gray, a Mead chemistry teacher whose class visited WSU in March, lauded Newton and the program. “Our kids have received so much from the collaboration we’ve had for the past 19 years,” she said. “From my perspective, it’s excellent.”

When visiting WSU, Gray’s students do college-level lab tests, using chromatographs, spectrometers and a variety of equipment, and link into the WSU computer system to analyze test results.

“It’s helped me in setting up my curriculum and to do much more,” she said. “Now, I’m teaching organic chemistry in the second year, rather than teaching a second year of inorganic chemistry. We do a series on chromatography, extract nicotine from cigars and cigarettes, synthesize aspirin and banana flavoring, then go to WSU and test the quality of the products we have made.

“And they get to experience WSU. They see what it’s like to be at that level, so the transition to college is smoother and not as intimidating. They are exposed to instrumentation before they get to college, so they’re not learning to run a machine when they get there. When we track students who go to WSU and other universities, they tend to perform better.”

Tom Johnson, Newton’s counterpart in physics, does similar presentations for classes coming to his WSU lab.

“Career fields in physics are wide open — computer industry consultants, accident investigations, national laboratory research, astronomy, astrophysics, teaching. It’s almost boundless as to the directions graduates can go,” said Johnson.

I see it as a trying to get them excited about science. If we can spur their interest in science, it can become a recruiting tool.”

At this point in time, Newton said, the biggest student recruiter is television and the glut of police/forensics investigations shows — CSI, CSI Las Vegas, CSI Miami, CSI New York, NCIS, Cold Case and others.

As an additional motivator, Newton consistently reminds students that the minimum wage in Washington is currently $7.63 per hour, about $16,000 per year. Meanwhile, science graduates average about $50,000-$60,000 for starting salaries.

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