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(Excerpted from the Akron Beacon Journal, 7/22/1999)

Beacon Journal staff writer

High schoolers are figuring out how to attach tracking devices to whales in a lab at the University of Akron as part of an international effort to study how whales and other marine animals live.

But educators say the scope of the project involves an even bigger prize.

The high schoolers are part of an Upward Bound program aimed at encouraging talented young people to pursue a college education, especially math and science studies.

The program is aimed at disadvantaged students who have displayed talent in math and science. Participants are either from low-income families or have parents who did not complete a four-year college degree.

``The whole idea is to kind of level the playing field and give these kids the same opportunities middle- and high-income kids often have'' said John Vesalo, coordinator of UA's federally funded Upward Bound Math/Science Program.

Often, kids from higher-income families go to affluent schools with fancy science labs, Vesalo said. Meanwhile, he said, kids from low-income areas go to schools with uninspiring math and science facilities.

``The students come here, and they're actually studying in one of the premier laboratories in the entire country with state-of-the-art facilities,'' Vesalo said.

On a recent morning, the fishy smell of whale blubber permeated a section of a lab in UA's Goodyear Polymer Science Building.

But the students focused on their whale project -- not the smell.

``We got over the smell early on,'' said 17-year-old Eldora Grandison, 17, who will be a senior at Firestone High School in Akron this fall.

``We're actually getting something accomplished,'' said 17-year-old David Gray of Durham, N.C. ``We're actually getting to use our minds -- we're not just following directions.''

Costly research
The students said they are testing polymers -- specifically adhesives -- to see how they stick to whale blubber. The students want to know if it is feasible for scientists to use some type of glue to attach the tracking devices to the whales.

Scientists now attach the devices -- tags -- to whales by partially implanting a barb into the blubber layer. However, many of the tags used to transmit data to satellites fall off shortly after they are attached.

This makes for costly research; the cost of a tag ranges from $3,500 to $5,000.

``The whale blubber tissue rejects objects. It's like how we work stones or splinters out of our skin,'' said Michael Williamson, director of WhaleNet, the

Massachusetts-based marine science program that uses information gained by tracking whales around the globe to excite students nationwide about math and science. WhaleNet is working with the UA students on the whale tag research.

Not ready to leave
First, the students at UA used vinyl -- which is similar in texture to whale blubber -- for the tests. Last week, some whale blubber was shipped to them. The students have determined that one type of commercial glue seems to work best. But the high schoolers -- just like professional scientists -- caution that more tests need to be performed.

They lament that their summer Upward Bound experience at UA will end this week and they won't be able to do further studies. Vesalo said that he and Partnership for America's Future [now the National Museum of Education 10/2005] officials are soliciting grant money to fund further Upward Bound research projects involving the whale tags.

The students are among 40 high schoolers from Ohio and other states who are attending UA for six weeks of math and science classes this summer as part of the Upward Bound initiative. During the school year, students attend workshops and tutorials and communicate with UA instructors via the Internet.

UA program organizers chose six of the math/science students for the whale tag project.

All of the Upward Bound math/science students live in UA dorm rooms and take classes in polymer science. They also take classes in chemistry, mathematics, computer science, literature, rhetoric and Latin.

Local teachers who run a program designed to promote students' creativity -- called Partnership for America's Future [now the National Musuem of Education 10/2005] -- introduced UA officials to the WhaleNet program. ``You couldn't have done this project without ingenuity,'' said 16-year-old Whitni Milton in the lab. She said the students had to develop their own testing methods.

``I'm learning that science takes a lot of creativity,'' said Whitni, who lives in Cincinnati.

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