STARS participants expand knowledge, love for research

By Erin Prather Stafford

Paula Rilling was one of eight teachers, 18 Dallas Independent School District students, three associates and four Eastfield College students who used their summer vacation to work with world-class researchers at UT Southwestern.

The chemistry teacher from Berkner High School in Richardson declared it one of the most challenging and productive summers of her life.

“The culture of support and discovery at UT Southwestern was energizing and unique,” said Ms. Rilling. “Everyone wanted you to succeed, mostly for you. Now that the summer has come to a close, I can conclude a few things: I still think science rocks; I am now a more capable scientist; I miss having the opportunity to watch my students become excited about this subject; and I feel refreshed as a science teacher in a way that no other summer experience has ever matched. ”

The Science Teacher Access to Resources (STARS) program helped Ms. Rilling and others to gain perspective on cutting-edge scientific research and the methodology behind it.

UT Southwestern’s STARS program was begun in 1991 by a group of faculty members who wanted to improve science education in Texas. It lasts eight weeks and consists of activities, presentations and individualized research projects for students and teachers. Each participant is placed with a faculty member who serves as a mentor and tutor for the summer.

“The teachers and students in the STARS summer research program seize the opportunity and embrace the challenge of working with world-class researchers to gain perspective on how science is done in the real world,” said Jeannie Song, STARS program coordinator.

“Not only do they work on an individualized research project that has the potential to contribute to the advancement of science, but also they have activities, presentations and lesson plans that they are required to create within the eight-week program,” she said. “These experiences supply them with a newfound confidence in their abilities and a rejuvenation of their love of science.”

STARS participant Elayna Tillman, a senior at the School of Health Professions at the Townview Magnet Center, said she has been “converted” to a science research career.

“When I first came to UT Southwestern, I was interested in only going to medical school, but now I’m thinking about getting my Ph.D. or maybe even both,” she said. “When I get back I plan to tell my teachers about the program so they can spread the word.”

Gavin McAlister, an associate participant and senior at St. Mark’s School of Texas, said the program reignited his interest in science and has led him to consider pursuing medicine after graduation.

Teachers also appreciated the program.

“STARS let me see how research is done,” said April Cordry-Moore, a geometry teacher at Cedar Hill High School. “The researchers I worked with are extraordinary and dedicated to the progression of their work and to sharing their inspiration with others. As a math teacher I have always known that mathematics and science are important. It has been refreshing to see real-world applications of the ideas I convey to my students.”

Ms. Cordy-Moore plans to share her experiences with students to make them more aware of opportunities in research.

STARS is supported by a special appropriation from the Texas Legislature and income from the Jan and Bob Bullock Distinguished Chair for Science Education, which is held by Dr. Joel Goodman, professor of pharmacology. In addition to the summer program, STARS also holds monthly symposia, in-service sessions for teachers and campus tours, among many other programs.

The program is open to all secondary school teachers in Texas, as well as juniors in high school.