Growing Future Scientists in a Lab

By: Leslie Brody | Follow Leslie Brody on Twitter | Email the author | The Wall Street Journal

New Jersey nonprofit looks to lure teenagers to science jobs with real-world experiments in a high-tech facility

Gwynn Munn, a Students 2 Science instructor, leads students in an experiment. Students 2 Science brings teenagers and professional scientists together to tackle projects in a high-end lab.

Photo: Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal

As owner of a laboratory that tested pharmaceuticals, Paul Winslow was dismayed by the scarcity of qualified scientists he could hire.

After selling his business a decade ago, he tried to do something about the shortage. Dr. Winslow leased space across from a cemetery in East Hanover, N.J., rustled up $4 million worth of donated equipment and recruited volunteer scientists to show teenagers the wonder of real-world experiments.

His goal: getting them hooked on science so they can land lucrative jobs and companies won’t have to leave New Jersey to find skilled workers.

About 22,600 jobs tied to science, technology, education and math are currently open in the state, according to the New Jersey Department of Labor. The department predicts these fields will account for 251,000 positions in New Jersey in 2024, up 9% from 2014.

“If you want to keep industry in New Jersey, you have to have the manpower,” Dr. Winslow says. “We want to provide the next generation of scientists.”

The growing nonprofit he co-founded, Students 2 Science, brings more than 2,000 teenagers yearly to tackle a series of projects with chemists, engineers and other professionals in a high-end lab. It has instruments far more complex than the Bunsen burners of yore, including a liquid chromatograph with a mass spectrometer that can analyze fluids and is worth about a half-million dollars. Experiments include testing drinks, such as Monster Energy and 5-hour Energy, to see which has the most caffeine. (Answer: coffee.)

Scientists and support come from a range of firms including Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., Daiichi Sankyo Inc. and Merck & Co.

Most students come from poor cities like Newark, where school officials hope to create a second Students 2 Science lab downtown next fall. Leaders of the nonprofit and Newark schools have raised $1 million and want to raise another $7 million over five years to do so.

On a recent morning, 34 eighth-graders from the Abington Avenue School in Newark put on goggles, lab coats and rubber gloves to conduct four experiments designed to pique their interest and provoke analysis. One sought to create a sunscreen that would work better than commercial products. One aimed to find how much antacid it takes to calm a roiling stomach. And another showed why it takes 450 years for a disposable diaper or plastic water bottle to decompose.

Nayely Urena, 13 years old, took to the challenge. “You get to get your hands dirty,” she said.

As Jacek Kowalski, a retired vaccine researcher, helped two boys measure the viscosity of a solvent, he nudged them to be more careful. “The accuracy of your result depends on the accuracy of your observation,” he said. “You’re making observations and not writing them down? We never rely on our memory!”

Supporters like Chris Cerf, superintendent in Newark, say this lab offers much more than a glorified field trip. Students 2 Science also provides a “virtual lab” that helps children conduct experiments in their classrooms under the tutelage of a scientist in a studio, in an interactive videoconference that can train teachers as well as students.

“Too often educators have made science pretty uninteresting with big fat textbooks,” Mr. Cerf said. “This is really hands on.”

Nelson Ruiz, principal of Abington Avenue School, said that after his middle-schoolers visited the East Hanover lab last fall, they asked to start their own science club. Now there’s a coed group and one for girls that draws about 40.

According to surveys by Students 2 Science after visits to its lab last year, 42% of middle-schoolers said they were more likely to consider a science career, and 81% of high-school students showed deeper knowledge of job options in pharmaceuticals and chemistry.

“The natural world is the greatest show on earth,” said Dr. Kowalski. “I just want to yell it from the highest mountaintop so that kids out there who have the aptitude will have that experience.”