Just because summer is here doesn’t mean that learning and exploration must come to an end.

Which is part of why some 100 area high-school students will forgo swimsuits for laboratory coats during their summer break as part of the UAB Center for Community OutReach Development (CORD) Summer Science Institute (SSI).

Since its inception in 1999, the Summer Science Institute has successfully drawn in some of the best students in the area, with a total enrollment of about 65 in 2005. Many of the students who participate are from Birmingham metro-area schools, something vital to CORD Director Michael Wyss.

“It’s extremely important to provide a boost to the science education of students within our minority school districts,” says Wyss, professor of cell biology. “The Birmingham metro area will have to make it [in the future] on their science. The industry of the 21st century is going to be science-based, so we have to enlist our students throughout the area to be leaders within that scientific infrastructure.”

The SSI program is unique. It’s a three-year program that introduces high-school students to a wide range of hands-on scientific research. BioTeach immerses rising sophomores in a three-week laboratory course in modern molecular biology. Their experience is then enhanced the next summer by ChemTeach, which focuses on state-of-the-art techniques in biochemistry. Capping off the three-year experience, rising seniors become research interns in one of UAB’s research laboratories. Students utilize the techniques and knowledge they learned during the previous two years to carry out a research project they design and execute during their internship.

The institute challenges students to explore new scientific ideas and methods, which facilitates their understanding of how science relates to the real world. It also provides them with the knowledge and skills to be competitive for the best science and technology undergraduate programs, including ones here at UAB.

“We see this summer program as a major pipeline by which UAB can aggressively recruit top-quality students,” Wyss says. “We are seeing the fruits of what they’re doing in our interns competing at the state and international science fairs and successfully competing in undergraduate and graduate education.  
Tino Unlap, assistant professor of medicine in nephrology, is one of many volunteer faculty members involved in the CORD program. Unlap says he is particularly impressed with the documented success of those who participate in the summer program; during the past three years, about 90 percent of the participants have elected to major in some area of science and technology in college, with almost 50 percent of those students choosing UAB for their undergraduate training. “When I see statistics like that, I’m very encouraged,” Unlap says.

In an effort to enhance UAB’s mission of teaching, research and service to the community, all 13 UAB schools and both UAB libraries partner with CORD as part of the program. They provide lectures, seminars and laboratory mentoring.

Wyss, who has been mentoring high-school students for five years, says he is still very excited about stimulating students to excel in science.

“It’s a tremendous boost to see kids who may not otherwise make it in science to step forward to become the science leaders of tomorrow,” he says.