Research gets results

May 31, 2001|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

When you're graduating near the top of the class, your next step cushioned with scholarships, May could be a smooth glide toward commencement. But not for the students in the Ingenuity Project at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. Recently in an advanced math class, students hunched over desks, taking notes as fellow classmates presented strategies for hurdling such subjects as Pythagorean theorem proofs.

Moreover, they were having fun.

Although exams are long over, these teen-agers seem reluctant to leave the intellectual world that has nurtured them. They are among the first graduating students of the Ingenuity Project, a rigorous and innovative program designed to increase achievement in math and science.

For some, the journey began in 1994, when the project launched with 60 sixth-graders who took advanced math and science classes in addition to regular courses at three city middle schools. The next stage of the program unfolded at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where Ingenuity students took classes in Poly's vaunted "A" Course as well as college-level math and science courses. In addition, they received support and guidance in outside research and lab work.

It was a bold concept: The Abell Foundation created and funded the Ingenuity Project to discover whether Baltimore's public school system could produce students who were academically sophisticated enough to compete against the nation's top math and science students.

With the right enrichment and mentoring, Ingenuity planners hoped, gifted students might even produce original research worthy of entering the Intel Talent Science Search, the Olympics of secondary school science.

At no extra cost to students, Ingenuity would provide teachers and advisers. It would supplement regular instruction with computer labs and coaching for academic competitions. It would fund summer work-study sessions and introduce students to Living Classrooms Foundation instruction on the Chesapeake Bay.

In return, the Ingenuity pupils - selected on the basis of testing, interviews and academic records - also had certain obligations. To stay in the program, they would attend school regularly with no unexcused absences. And they would maintain an average of 80 or above in all course work.

The dream: Under guidance by the right mentor, each student would find research compelling enough to commit to the extra work required by entering the Intel competition. Five of the program's first senior class did just that.

Working evenings, weekends and summers around the demands of homework and jobs, these teen-agers learned the excitement and the pitfalls of real-life research. When they finally submitted their projects to the Intel Search last December, they became the first city public school students in recent memory to enter the prestigious competition, according to Ingenuity director Karol Costa.

Melissa Martinez, Dennis Spencer, Al Brzeczko, Yi Zheng and Tameeka Williams competed in a field of 1,592 applicants for the $100,000 award often called the "junior Nobel Prize." And while they did not make the final rounds of competition, they managed to set the bar for their younger colleagues at Poly. Their hard work demonstrated that dedication and discipline fuel achievement as much as genius. And to reward their pioneering efforts, the Ingenuity Project sent them on a field trip to Paris over spring break.

Here are snapshots of these students and their work.

Melissa Martinez

If Melissa Martinez had remained in the Philippines, she believes, she might never have gone to college ... and certainly would not have discovered how much she loves biological research.

At 9, she moved to Baltimore, where her mother had found work as a nurse. By the time she entered the Ingenuity program four years later, she had mastered English. And when she reached high school, she plunged deep into courses which shaped her thoughts about her future.

In 10th grade Martinez began working with a mentor at Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Heath. Dr. Thaddeus Graczyk was studying the transmission of cryptosporidium, waterborne parasites, and Martinez investigated how house and stable flies carried the parasites on their bodies and in their intestines.

The work eventually led to the Intel competition - and to the more important realization that she felt at home in a lab.

"I think I'm pretty good at [research]," the 18-year-old says. "I'm really meticulous and the kind of personality where everything has to be straight before I do anything. I remember the lab tech saying `You're cut out for this sort of thing.' And I like this kind of work."

Martinez recently presented her research at the state's Junior Science and Humanities Symposium at the University of Maryland. President of the National Honor Society at Poly, she will attend the College of Notre Dame of Maryland on a full scholarship, planning to pursue a joint degree program in biomedical engineering with Hopkins or Columbia.

Dennis Spencer

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