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Behind The Scenes Of Project Seed

Passionate volunteers drive a successful effort to mentor low-income youth in research and in life

by Linda Wang
March 20, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 12

Credit: Courtesy of California Section SEED Program
Yamaguchi (left) with mentor Kam-Sik Ng (behind) and SEED student Shelly Huang.
Credit: Courtesy of California Section SEED Program
Yamaguchi (left) with mentor Kam-Sik Ng (behind) and SEED student Shelly Huang.

In the small town of Arkadelphia, Ark., Henderson State University assistant chemistry professor Martin Campbell is exchanging e-mails with a high school chemistry teacher to arrange a summer internship in his lab for one of her low-income students.

Summer Of Science
Credit: Photo by Sharon Weldon
Cede??o (left) and SEED student Delano Robinson work together on a laser photoacoustic calorimetric experiment.
Credit: Photo by Sharon Weldon
Cede??o (left) and SEED student Delano Robinson work together on a laser photoacoustic calorimetric experiment.

Meanwhile, at the University of Toledo, in Ohio, Andy Jorgensen is juggling what seem to be a million tasks. He's recruiting high school students for half the chemistry faculty members to mentor, trying to secure funding for the summer research program, and just plain doing a lot of paperwork.

And in Richmond, Calif., Chevron Oronite staff scientist Elaine S. Yamaguchi has begun interviewing high school students for several dozen spots in chemical companies around Northern California.

As Project SEED gears up for another summer, several hundred mentors and coordinators like Campbell, Jorgensen, and Yamaguchi are working to make sure this all-volunteer operation runs like a well-oiled machine.

Begun in 1968 by Alan C. Nixon (ACS president, 1973) and others, Project SEED is ACS's summer research program for economically disadvantaged high school students. Students work for eight to 10 weeks in an academic, government, or corporate research lab and submit a project report at the end of the summer.

The students receive a stipend of $2,275 for their first summer and $2,600 if they return for a second summer. Some go on to receive SEED scholarships for college (see page 51). Funding comes from a combination of sources, including a SEED endowment managed by ACS, the ACS Petroleum Research Fund, local ACS sections, and individual and corporate donations.

Approximately 350 mentors and coordinators from 28 states have committed to Project SEED for this summer. Many of them are returning, but for some, this will be their first experience. According to Cecilia Hernandez, ACS staff liaison for the Council Committee on Project SEED, roughly 77% of the mentors and coordinators participating are from academia, 6% are from government labs, and 17% are from industry. Together, they will mentor around 460 students this summer.

J. Philip Bays, chair of the ACS Council Committee on Project SEED and chemistry professor at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Ind., says the mentors and coordinators are "absolutely crucial" to the success of the program. These volunteers do not receive any financial compensation for their time. "The only paid people are the students," laughs Michael T. Cheng, a research scientist and mentor at Chevron Energy Technology Co., Richmond, Calif.

Mentors and coordinators say they participate in SEED because they truly believe in the cause, and they believe in the kids. "The reward is not economic," says David L. Cede??o, an assistant professor of physical chemistry and SEED coordinator at Illinois State University. "The reward is seeing that these kids have a chance in life."

Coordinators such as Cede??o have a number of responsibilities, including recruiting the mentors and students, making mentor/student matches, and raising funds. Charsetta M. Grant, an organic chemist and SEED coordinator at Eli Lilly & Co., admits that it's a tough job, and sometimes the sheer amount of paperwork can get to her. "But that means someone else can focus on taking care of students during the eight-week summer period," she says. Cora Lind, an assistant professor of chemistry and mentor at the University of Toledo, believes that this ability to "tag-team" is one of the reasons so many mentors are willing to participate.

In smaller programs, such as the one at Henderson State, one person may play all of the roles required to run a SEED program. Campbell says he is responsible for the entire process, from visiting high schools to making sure that his students get paid. "I suspect there are a bunch of us lone rangers out there," he says. Still, he finds that the work is manageable.

Various SEED programs also differ in how much day-to-day interaction mentors have with their students. Some mentors, like associate professor Timothy H. Warren of Georgetown University, assign one of their graduate or undergraduate students to work with the SEED student. "I thought that there might be an opportunity for more peer mentoring than I would be able to offer," Warren says, adding that he holds a progress discussion with his SEED student each week.

Other mentors, particularly those from predominantly undergraduate institutions, work directly with their students. In industry, it's a different story: Students are typically part of a team and are exposed to several adult mentors during the day, Yamaguchi says.

Despite these operational differences, the benefits to mentoring a SEED student are more or less the same. Lind says that having a high school student around energizes everybody in the lab. "You feel the excitement in the other person, and you can't help but pick up a little bit of it," she says.

Warren says his SEED student forced his other students to become better teachers. "It made them work harder on explaining what they were doing, and ultimately I believe that's a good thing," he says.

Cede??o says many of his SEED students have made real research progress; one student even got his work published.

Ultimately, SEED is about more than doing science. Mentors emphasize that part of the experience is learning life skills and preparing for the real world. Students often turn to their mentors for career counseling or college advice. And sometimes the students confide in their mentors about personal issues.

But SEED is not all serious stuff. After all, these are high school students, and they are entitled to some fun. Cede??o has taken his students on tours of a local forensics lab, a hospital, and U.S. Department of Agriculture facilities. He also sets up ice-cream socials and plans fun experiments for the students. For the past two summers, his students have gathered for backyard barbecues at the house of one of the mentors.

Jorgensen invites his SEED students to participate in the university's summer chemistry camp, a three-day activity for students interested in becoming chemistry majors. The students perform chemistry experiments and tour a local chemical plant or science museum.

Such opportunities are harder to come by at places where there is only one SEED student, but Sharon L. Haynie, a research scientist and mentor at DuPont, says she makes up for the lack in other ways. She encourages her SEED student to talk with other scientists and college students participating in the company's summer internship program. "It's not as structured, but I think even the informal method works," she says.

Being resourceful can help mentors overcome other challenges as well. Campbell initially tried to recruit students by contacting guidance counselors at area high schools. When that didn't work, he went to the local high school and spent an afternoon explaining Project SEED to the chemistry teacher there. It paid off, because he got a student last summer, and he is working with the same teacher to place a student this summer.

One of the biggest challenges for Yamaguchi, a coordinator for the ACS California Section, is making a good mentor/student match. One year, she had a student with extremely low self-confidence. After much searching, Yamaguchi paired her up with a "grandmotherly type" mentor who ultimately brought the student out of her shell.

Sometimes, a mentor just needs to keep an open mind. Last summer, Cheng mentored a student who knew a lot about computers but not so much about chemistry. "We found something for him to do that has some laboratory operations, but he really helped us in terms of our laboratory computer situation," Cheng says, noting that the student networked all of their laboratory computers that summer.

That same student later became curious about why he had to change the water in his fish tank so often. He and Cheng devised an experiment to analyze the composition of the water. "Every year, I get a different person, and different people have different habits and personalities," Cheng says. "I learn to use their capabilities and adapt projects to their training and personalities."

For some, this summer will be their first experience with Project SEED. Eric D. Conte, an associate chemistry professor at Western Kentucky University, heard about SEED from a colleague and, having had a positive experience with high school students in the past, decided to get involved. What's more, he sent an e-mail to the rest of the chemistry faculty to ask whether anyone would be interested in joining him. This summer, six chemistry professors from Western Kentucky, including Conte, will be SEED mentors for the first time.

Susan R. Fahrenholtz, a retired chemist and a coordinator for the North Jersey Section SEED program, is one of the biggest champions of SEED. For the past few years, she has been encouraging high school teachers in low-income areas to become coordinators. She points out that these teachers "have the most at stake because they want the best for their students." Another untapped resource is the growing body of retired chemists, Fahrenholtz says.

To increase mentor participation, several years ago, the SEED committee organized training programs for mentors. But participation in the training was low. "Some people say we should train mentors," Fahrenholtz says. "Mentors know what to do. What we have to do is thank them."

Bays says that in the past few years, the SEED committee has been doing more of that. The Project SEED ChemLuminary Award recognizes local sections that have outstanding SEED programs. Last year, the award went to the North Jersey Section. "We continue to look for ways to honor mentors and coordinators individually and as a group," he says.

But the real reward comes at the end of each summer when the hundreds of SEED mentors and coordinators begin to see results of their hard work.

"One of the amazing things is how many of these mentors come back and do it again and again and again," Bays says. "When you begin to hear the students' stories, you not only feel, but know that it's worthwhile."


Behind The Scenes Of Project Seed

Passionate volunteers drive a successful effort to mentor low-income youth in research and in life

Memoirs Of A SEED Student


How To Get Involved

Learn more about becoming a SEED mentor or coordinator by visiting or contact Raihanah Rasheed at or (800) 227-5558 ext. 4380.


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