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Rutgers University-Newark summer institute encourages inner city kids to think big

August 29, 2013
Bonnie Fong

Bonnie Fong, a librarian at the John Cotton Dana Library at Rutgers-Newark, talks with some of the participants in the 2013 Merck Summer Bioethics Institute during one of the information literacy workshops in the library. Photo by Robert Nahory.

Getting a college degree or more in a sophisticated scientific field may not be a common aspiration for students in inner city schools. But a creative program on the Rutgers Newark campus in July offers a select number of students a compelling vision of their possible future careers.

The Rutgers Merck Summer Bioethics Institute, which ran for its eighth year this past summer, enlists 20 highly-motivated students for high schools in Newark, Orange, and other urban cities in Essex County for an intensive one-week course on biotechnology and ethics. Participants spent the week of July 7th - 13th living in college dorms on the Rutgers-Newark campuses and attending five full days of classes taught by renowned professors in a variety of fields.

The institute is supported by the Rutgers-Newark Chancellor's office, with funding provided by the Merck & Company, Inc pharmaceutical firm.

The 2013 Institute featured presentations on topics such as:

  • What is free will? How does this concept reconcile with physical laws governing the universe? - talk by Dr. Cosim Sayid, Dept. of Philosophy, CUNY
  • Neural network models of human brains and their use in robots - talk by Dr. Hassan Muhammed, Dept. of Biomedical Engineering, New Jersey Institute of Technology
  • Using the loopholes method in reasoning - Dr. Lion Gardiner, Department of Zoology, Rutgers-Newark
  • How neuro-technology is represented in literature and film - Dr. Anastasia Pease, Dept. of English, Union College, and Dr. Linda McDonald Glenn, the Singularity Institute
  • What is an fMRI picture of the human brain and what does it tell us? - Dr. Barry Komisaruk, Board of Governors Professor of Psychology, Rutgers-Newark
  • New technical developments in neuroscience, illustrated by class use of a robotic arm - Dr. Robert Nahory, Digital Library Applications Developer, Rutgers University Libraries.

Students were encouraged to integrate the talks into group neuroethics projects through weekday morning critical thinking and writing workshops led by Dr. Jeff Buechner, Dept. of Philosophy, Rutgers-Newark, and directed study sessions led by Trondell Dupree of the Orange Board of Education and Ms. Ijeoma Egekeze of Georgetown University.

The students' work was also guided by four information literacy workshops taught by Bonnie Fong and Roberta Tipton, librarians in the John Cotton Dana Library at Rutgers-Newark. The library workshops covered topics such as how to evaluate the reliability of websites and other information sources, finding books in the Rutgers catalog that best serve a research topic, developing a proper citation for a research project using the MLA style, finding articles using scholarly databases on the Libraries website, and performing advanced searches using Google.

The students presented their neuroethics projects at a gala banquet for students and their parents at the conclusion of the institute. The banquet included talks by Noreen M. Lenart, senior ethics associate at Merck and Company, Inc., and Dr. Diane Hill, assistant chancellor of the Rutgers-Newark campus.

Rutgers' librarian Bonnie Fong remarked that the institute "is quite unique and very valuable because it offers the students an opportunity to learn in a way that is different from the traditional high school curriculum. They study an interdisciplinary topic, learn from scientists, professors in the other disciplines, and librarians. As they perform research and work with their group to create a presentation about a topic of their choice, the students develop critical thinking, teamwork, and time management skills."

Bonnie learned as well, from the students' feedback forms, that the institute inspired a number of the participants to consider neuroscience as a field of study - one that a few of the students said they didn't even know was a possibility before this summer.