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South Portland 'university' promotes high school STEM education

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South Portland 'university' promotes high school STEM education

SOUTH PORTLAND — The transparent gelatinous alginate strands South Portland High School junior Jackeline Zarate and Portland High School junior Bailey Ruesch pulled from a test tube last week at Fairchild Semiconductor were nanotechnology at their fingertips.

"I've always liked math especially, so I was happy to come," Ruesch said as she created the compound with Zarate during the three-day, first-ever Semi High Tech University in Maine.

Sponsored by the nonprofit Semi Foundation of San Jose, Calif., the intensive course merged fun, practical applications in science, technology, engineering and math with mock job interviews for students who are not always selected just because of outstanding grades.

Students from Portland, Deering, Casco Bay, Falmouth, South Portland and Scarborough high schools were joined by students from Central Catholic High School of Lawrence, Mass., for the program, which Fairchild Semiconductor Managing Director Brian Schoonover said could become a twice-yearly offering.

“I really did connect with the kids, and that was not what I was expecting. I also thought it was going to be a good thing for my organization,” Schoonover said Tuesday.

A $225,000, three-year grant from the company helps underwrite science, technology, engineering and math education, known by the STEM acronym, at South Portland High School. The company also supports robotics teams in Maine.

Lisa Anderson, the foundation vice president said the 40 students were selected by school staffs.

"Some students know what they want, and this confirms it," Anderson said Nov. 1 outside the room where Thomas Webster, chairman of the Northeastern University Department of Chemical Engineering, led a morning-long session on nanotechnology.

"We are walking nano materials," Webster told students as he outlined how creating compound strands too small to be considered microscopic have produced benefits in food, medicine, apparel and athletics.

Reusch, Zarate and about 10 other students made alginates, goopy strings used to bond foods such as ice cream, yogurt and Jello.

At another table, Casco Bay High School junior Marta Haydym created a compound used to stimulate bone growth for prosthetics, then explained the procedure with Gorham freshman Teddy Lockman. Before that, she sampled nail polish that changes shades in ultraviolet light, another product of nanotechnology.

At a third table, students created magnetic particles in fluid, which could be directed through the body for healing purposes.

Nanotechnology was not the only realm explored. Students learned about microchip technology, electrical conductivity and circuit board construction.

South Portland junior Sam Woodward said he enjoyed the all-encompassing learning experience.

"It was really cool," Woodward said. "I didn't know much about microchips when we started."

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.