Project SMART Summer Institute

Virtual Course, Actual Success
UNH Project SMART 2020 participants

UNH’s Project SMART (Science and Mathematics Achievement through Research Training) did not let this year’s COVID-19 pandemic mean a break in its 30-year history. The annual on-campus summer course for high school students in grades 10 through 12 interested in the latest scientific advances in the field of biotechnology and their impacts on society pivoted to a modified online format.

The program was dubbed “Project Smart 2020½” to reflect the curriculum adjustments made to accommodate remote learning. The theme was “Biotechnology and Society: Opportunities and Challenges,” and topics included genes and genetics, DNA, plant cloning, nanotechnology and — appropriately — viruses, including a full session on COVID-19

Normally, program participants live on the UNH campus during the four-week-long course and choose from three areas of study: biotechnology and nanotechnology; marine and environmental science or space science. All three modules include a mix of lectures, discussions, hands-on laboratory experience, and field trips. Students also learn how to conduct research with UNH faculty.

“The summer program is an excellent opportunity to learn about the interdisciplinary nature of the various scientific fields and the economic, social, environmental, legal, ethical and moral implications of recent scientific advancements,” says Subhash Minocha, professor of biological sciences, director of the program, and leader of the biotechnology and nanotechnology module. “In addition to learning and doing science, the students gain a greater appreciation for careers associated with the various sciences and establish friendships with their peers and mentoring relationships with the UNH faculty and students.”

The program always attracts students from all over the U.S. and the globe, and this year was no different. In fact, says Minocha, this year was the most international group ever, with almost 50 percent of the participants from abroad.

On the final day of the program, during which students showcase what they’ve learned through an oral or poster presentation, the participants were treated to a conversation with NASA astronaut Sunita L. Williams, who joined the group via Zoom from Houston.

A veteran of two International Space Station missions, Williams reminded students to “think about all you’d like to learn and see when you get down about what’s going on around you.” She also shared fascinating details of her 22-year career as an astronaut and answered many student questions, including explaining why astronauts grow taller while they’re in space.

“Moving Project SMART online was a challenge that I am glad I accepted,” says Minocha. “The students were great, had lots of questions and developed some long-lasting friendships with each other, which I hope will be long-lasting.”

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