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Science All-Stars Camp Out At SMU

It may be the middle of summer, but it’s graduation day for dozens of teens in science camp. A six-week summer school at SMU ends today. It was built for teenage science superstars from across the country.

“Well we just cut open the heart of the fetal pig. . .”

It’s pig dissection day in the science lab for soon-to-be 9th graders, like 14 year-old Armani Holland.

“Right  now we’re cutting to see the pancreas, so we’re making incisions to see the pancreas of the pig.”  

A lot of us can get grossed-out by dissecting anything, let alone a grayish pink, dead baby pig. Not Holland.

“I thought I would be. The smell is a little horrifying. But not too bad. Some people I guess are afraid of blood. Since I’ve been hurt many times in sports and things, I’m not such a big deal about it.”

Here’s what is a big deal for Armani, who’s from Los Angeles, where her mom works at a college and dad’s an engineer. She’s doing in these six weeks what many older high school students never get to do - learn advanced science while hanging out with other passionate students. She loves this stuff.  When queried about college, she just laughs  because she’s so obsessed about it. And she’s not even in high school yet.

 “I always, like, go to the top colleges, so I always, like, go on their sites. I always go on, like,  Stanford, and - Yale isn’t up there - but I like Yale too. Harvard…”

Holland has an excellent chance of getting in, too. Every kid in this program so far has gone to college. And 85 percent of them enter graduate school, according to retired hand surgeon Dr. Charles Knibb. He oversees the multi-year STEMPREP summer camp – it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math preparation. It targets minority students. Knibb, who’s African American, says these may be super smart students, but science for kids of color remains a challenge.

“It definitely is tough. I don’t want to say especially for minority kids, but especially for minority kids. Because as they’re growing up, if they’re female, pregnancy can derail your career, even for the guys.”

Knibb  also worries about smart minority students who “dumb down” from peer pressure.  Eighty-three minority kids are in STEMPREP this summer. Krystal Lau went through it a few years back, from 8th to 12th grade. Now a 2nd year medical student at UT Southwestern Medical School, the past graduate was asked to come back and teach. She’s happy to. It changed her life.

“I don’t’ think I really had a passion in 8th grade when I didn’t really know what science was about. That passion for science really developed through this program and through my studies in high school and college.”

Krystal was hooked. Armani Holland got hooked in part because of a cast member on a TV show.

 “One of the ladies in Law & Order: SVU, she kind of was a forensic scientist so what she did seemed pretty cool. She could tell what time something may have happened and what it was caused by.”

For Holland, it isn’t just that the character’s a woman. The show’s coroner is Black, with hair just like Holland’s.

“And so when you see a woman which is something really different,” says Armani Holland, “you’re like, ok, well since she can do it, maybe I can do it, and maybe I can learn how to do it.”

Charles Knibb might say 'bet on it.' Holland and eighty-two others in the program celebrate their graduation this afternoon. That’s after taking their 3-hour end-of-course exam. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.