APS News

APS Selects New Corporate Minority Scholars

The APS has awarded Campaign-for-Physics sponsored Corporate Minority Scholarships to 31 students who are majoring or planning to major in physics. This is the most ever awarded in a single year. Since its inception in 1980, the program has helped more than 250 minority students pursue physics degrees. Each scholarship consists of $2000, which may be renewed once, and may be used for tuition, room and board.

By far the youngest new scholar is 15-year-old Natalia Toro, who emigrated with her family from Medellin, Colombia in South America, a region with few educational resources in physics and mathematics. But her natural aptitude became apparent during an elementary school science class when she observed that a pendulum's motion was predictable according to strict mathematical laws. "I am fascinated by the process of taking abstract mathematical concepts, then linking them to general physical theory and applying the results to specific problems in physics or engineering," she wrote in her application. In addition to her regular advanced placement high school courses in physics and calculus, Toro has taken several courses at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in physics, optics, thermodynamics, and analytical mechanics, among other subjects. Last summer she attended the Research Science Institute at MIT studying neutrino oscillations, and was an alternate on the US Physics Team for the 29th International Physics Olympiad. Toro is also one of the 40 finalists in the 1999 Intel Science Talent Search competition.

The daughter of a Mohawk mother and Kiowa father, Melody Redbird learned to read at age 2 and gained a love of science from the Montessori school she attended until age 6. Home-schooled until age 10, she plays the violin and writes poetry and short stories, and has interests in astronomy. She also participates in a traveling Native American Dance group that was featured in People magazine in 1997. In addition to her regular high school duties, she completed an independent research project on magnetic levitation and its future applications.

Adam Orin of Chula Vista, CA, recalls taking apart a remote control car to see what made it work, and was "rewarded with a treasure of gears, wires and tiny motors." He went on to investigate batteries, small motors, and computers. His interest in astronomy was fostered by his father, who bought him a telescope and took him to watch meteor showers in the Laguna Mountains and took him on a tour of the San Diego Palomar Observatory. As a senior at Eastlake High School, he participated in its Digital High School program, in which students maintain the campus computers and network. The students are also building an observatory, which will be the only one of its kind owned by a California high school.

Yaseen Oweis of Ellicott City, MD, used to make repairs on broken clocks, old typewriters or other machinery, and soon graduated to building and flying radio-controlled model airplanes, becoming intrigued about the scientific principles that enabled them to remain airborne, as well as the harmonic motion creating the sound from violin strings. "Physics has helped me look onto the universe not as an incomprehensible assortment of random processes, but as a huge machine that has worked and will always work in the same way," he wrote in his application essay. Oweis plans to go on to medical school after earning a BS in physics and eventually hopes to specialize in neurosurgery. Through a local mentor program at Mount Hebron High School, he worked with David Durham of Johns Hopkins University on a project to study lunar occultations on the surface of the moon.

While summer physics class at MIT in junior high school inspired Aaron Santos of Fairhaven, MA, to study physics, coupled with a long-standing interest in biology. He plans to specialize in biophysics. In addition to participating in a six-week introductory program in engineering and science at MIT, he was selected to participate in the first cadet training program on board the H.M.S. Bounty, a replica ship built for the 1962 film "Mutiny on the Bounty," starring Marlon Brando. Along with the other cadets, Santos lived on the boat for a nine-week sail around Nova Scotia, learning about the ship's history and the art of sailing.

A complete list of this year's corporate minority scholars can be found at www.aps.org under the Education and Outreach button.

The APS scholarship program operates under the auspices of the APS Committee on Minorities, and is supported by funds allocated from the APS Campaign for Physics. Scholarships are awarded to African-American, Hispanic American and Native American students who are high school seniors, college freshmen or sophomores. For applications for the 2000-2001 competition, contact Arlene Modeste at modeste@aps.org.

Keeper of the Flame
Among the attendees at the Nobel Laureate luncheon at the APS Centennial meeting in March (see APS News, June 1999) were four students from Riverwood High School in Atlanta, GA. They came with their physics teacher, Estella Bonilla (now Davison), a former APS Corporate Minority Scholar.

Bonilla was named an APS Corporate Scholar in 1991-1993. While she had always been interested in math and science, as the daughter of a nurse, she originally had dreams of becoming a doctor, but "I didn't really want to dissect anything." At a junior high career day, she met an engineer with the US Air Force whose job description intrigued her. Her choice of college, Xavier University in Louisiana, had a combined physics and mechanical engineering degree program, and she selected that as her major. She found herself enjoying the physics courses she took at Xavier much more than she had in high school. "The teachers did a lot of exploratory activities, instead of just lecturing," she said.

However, when it came time to take her engineering courses, Bonilla found she didn't enjoy them as much as her physics classes. About the same time, the APS sponsored a conference in Chevy Chase, MD, and invited several corporate scholars. She discovered that many of those in attendance were former engineering majors. That same year, her father died at age 44, "and I decided life is too short to be doing something you don't like." She completed her physics coursework at Xavier and then went on to the University of Florida for graduate studies in education. "I'd always wanted to teach, but I'd never seen a physics teacher who looked like me," she said.

Today, she has become the physics teacher she never had in high school. Dissatisfied with the required textbooks and standard physics curriculum, she spends only a third of class times lecturing and having her students take notes. The remainder is spent on problem solving, laboratory activities, and a series of outdoor demonstrations built around the physics of sports: football, baseball, tennis, etc. Usually held during the lunch hour, the demos have the added benefit of piquing the interest of other students sitting outside eating. "Students may write things down, but if they see it and do it for themselves, that's when they remember and understand it." To encourage students with weaker math skills, she doesn't require them to memorize equations, handing out a list of those that are required to complete assignments. "If they don't know how to apply them, it doesn't matter whether they memorize them or not," she reasons.

The approach is paying off with a noticeable increase in the number of students taking physics, and the school is considering hiring a second physics teacher next year if enrollment continues to rise. As for Bonilla, she is reaping the rewards of personal satisfaction in her choice of career. "I love seeing the light bulbs come on when they realize why something works," she says of her students. "I like making them see that physics is not this horrible, wretched thing they have to take in order to graduate."




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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
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