High school students Sadhana Rajesh, Katherine Preheim, and Jake Chon pour the contents of their beaker into a filter and analyze microplastics at chemistry professor Anne McNeil's camp. Photos by Liz DeCamp.
In the early morning, down a long hall extending from the U-M chemistry building’s atrium, the eager chatter of nearly 20 high school students reveals their location as the last room on the right. If you peer in, you’ll see small groups of students in white coats and lab goggles huddled together in front of chemical hoods, filtering microplastics through a funnel, or at a table analyzing their soil samples in a petri dish. LSA graduate students Malavika Ramkumar and Henry Thurber act as mentors for the budding scientists, circling the room to answer any questions they may raise.
The students are here for two weeks to learn about polymers and cultivate their scientific interests as part of the Michigan Math and Science Scholars Program, while also having fun and meeting others their age with a shared interest in sustainability.
Each summer, high school students from around the world learn from LSA chemistry professor Anne McNeil and her team about the limitations with current methods of plastics recycling, how to make and test the strength of biopolymers, how to make and break down degradable polymers, and how to analyze soil samples for microplastics pollution. When not in the lab or participating in a neighborhood cleanup, there’s also time set aside for touring the Big House, tie dying, and getting ice cream.
Since 2015, McNeil has hosted the camp for high school students interested in STEM. Polymers, the focus of this camp, are large molecules made by bonding monomer molecules together, creating synthetic materials like plastic and resin.
Her research group, consisting of postdoctoral, graduate, and undergraduate students, spends their time re-imagining the life cycle of plastics, investigating unique ways to create new energy storage, and evaluating microplastic pollution in the environment. They’re committed to using chemistry to build a more sustainable world and inspiring future generations of scientists, with some bolstering their skillsets even further by serving as mentors for these high school students.
“Many people know that plastic recycling and using less plastic are important for decreasing pollution, but many don’t know why it can be difficult to do this,” Thurber says. “Stopping plastic use may seem like a simple solution, but it is much more difficult than that when everyone’s daily life depends on it.”
McNeil’s camp within the Michigan Math and Science Scholars Program wasn’t originally as focused on teaching about sustainability. With years of teaching various chemistry classes and meeting new campers every summer, McNeil realized the younger generation seemed to be motivated by the idea, expressing interest in learning more about how they can reduce their ecological footprint.
“When we switched the camp over to teach more about sustainability, compared to just talking about esoteric polymer chemistry, the graduate students and postdocs seemed to have more fun teaching it, and the students loved it so much more, too,” says McNeil.
The students demonstrate what they’ve learned about sustainable polymers by the end of the camp in a unique way: They make stop-motion videos. The idea behind the project is that the presentation and communication skills the students develop will help set them up for success in their future careers in STEM, while offering an opportunity to have fun and reflect on their main takeaways from the camp.
“I can see students are realizing they can use their knowledge and time and pair their work with their passion for the environment. I think that’s my life goal: to inspire students to share this passion with me and be able to live it out,” says McNeil.
“The camp was an unforgettable experience, one that left an indelible mark on my passion for sustainability and polymers … (It) allowed me to comprehend just how intricate and demanding it is to discover sustainable and practical materials. It made me acutely aware of the urgent need for innovative solutions to reduce our environmental impact,” says camp participant Sadhana Rajesh, a rising high school senior from Canton, Michigan. “I firmly believe that sustainability is not just a fleeting interest; it has become an integral part of who I am, and I am wholeheartedly devoted to incorporating it into my life, both personally and professionally.”