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Gloria Bonilla Santiago

Gloria Bonilla Santiago

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Star Science Students Aren't too Cool for School

Posted: 04/14/11 12:40 PM ET

Camden, New Jersey -- A 17 year old from one of America's poorest and most dangerous cities has discovered just how cool science can be.

After being immersed in her school's intensive STEM program -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Math -- for just the past six months, Tatiana Padilla entered her first science fair with her experiment in "Blood vs. Velocity" which reflects her interest in forensics. She won top honors and proceeded to a regional competition where she also received honors.

Tatiana is so completely turned on to science and encouraged by her success that she now believes she can become the next great American forensic scientist -- a real life version of the character Catherine Willows, the forensic scientist from the TV show CSI.

She is determined to beat the odds and become the first member of her family to attend college; she is determined to even dare to dream of higher education when she lives in a city where fewer than half of her peers finish high school.

Tatiana is also determined to break through the gender gap that exists in science. In fact, her science teacher was the first woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in Physics from her university in a decade. Our educational system needs to wake up and ensure that females have the same opportunities as males to receive a STEM education.

Still, the question begs to be asked: Are science superstars like Tatiana as cool as student athletes? Is solving a scientific challenge as awesome as hitting a game-winning jump shot?

They're beginning to think so at LEAP Academy in Camden, where Tatiana and her classmates look forward to seeing students who achieve in science and technology being celebrated just like their peers who win sports championships. In fact, they haven't been able to get that idea out of their heads since they heard President Obama assert that "Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models...We're going to show young people how cool science can be."

The effort to inspire and educate a new generation in math and science is the inspiration for STEM curriculum in schools across the country. At LEAP, where the STEM program is in its infancy, the early success of its students has brought tears of joy, pride, and disbelief.

Graduates in STEM careers will solve the biggest problems of the 21st century -- issues in fields such as healthcare, energy and global warming. Tatiana is on the right road to succeed, but how many teenagers in Camden can say the same?

In fact, how many minority kids nationwide can even dream of a career in science? African American, Latinos and American Indians constitute 30 percent of the nations' undergraduates -- a proportion that is expected to grow 38 percent by 2025. Latinos will account for 90 percent of the growth, yet today fewer than 12 percent of baccalaureate engineering graduates in this country are minorities.

We've been hearing for years how American kids are losing ground in science and math. In places like Camden, where kids start school with a series of challenges including developmental delays, lack of socialization and a smaller vocabulary compared to kids from wealthier areas, careers in science and math are rare. STEM curriculum starting in Pre-School should be a goal for our country if we are to change the dynamic.

At LEAP Academy, the STEM gamble has already paid off. STEM charter schools and programs bring the same intensity to science that many schools bring to sports. And for minorities, who too often have been underrepresented in scientific and technological fields, these programs expand opportunities to teach kids the ability to think critically, problem solve and innovate and experiment. In a world where education is the key to success in an ever more competitive global economy, STEM programs make it possible for students to see themselves in the role of innovator, inventor and investor.

For Tatiana and her STEM-mates, the lure of discovery and the high of innovation have engendered a newfound sense of self and the determination to work hard and achieve extraordinary things. Science is indeed...cool.