Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, December 3, 1999  |  Number 23
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

Physicist Dave Finley discusses science careers with local high school students.

by Mike Perricone

The sprawling Field House at Proviso West High School, in the near western Chicago suburb of Hillside, is large enough to hold comfortably an indoor track, a sand pit for indoor field events, several swing-down basketball backboards, and a bank of fold-down bleacher seats along one long wall.

But it can barely contain the noise and energy of hundreds of adolescent students set to roaming among two dozen tables staffed by representatives from an array of professions for the school's annual Career Day.

"From the time they begin school, we ask them, What do you want to do when you grow up?'" says Gloria Wolanin, a Proviso West teacher for 25 years and the coordinator for the day's activities. "When they're seniors in high school, we're asking them the same question.

"Some of them have definite ideas of what they want to do," Wolanin continues. "But some of them don't have a clue. Our goal for this day is to have them learn about different types of careers. We try to vary the representation of careers a little each year."

Among the careers represented this year: airplane mechanic; U.S. Army (accompanied by a shiny black Hummer personnel carrier that rolls into the gym through a loading bay and proves to be the hit of the day); architect; carpenter; cosmetologist and nail technician; firefighter; forester; forensic scientist; judge; laborer; lawyer; massage therapist (she's also a Proviso West graduate); U.S. Navy; police; roofer; and physicist.

"Dr. Dave's World" is the legend on the Fermilab display, and "Dr. Dave" is Dave Finley, accelerator physicist and former head of the Lab's Beams Division. Fred Ullrich, head of Fermilab's Visual Media Services, has brought along a laptop computer with a video presentation of an "Intercollegiate Physics Bowl" quiz show, hosted by Fermilab physicist Catherine James.

And with Ullrich's help, Finley uses a velcro-friendly backdrop to display photos of the Lab site and the Tevatron, the buffalo herd, and the 12 participants in last summer's Target program. Nearly 400 students have gone through Target, a six-week summer program at the Lab combining mentoring and classes for gifted minority high school students.

"You can see that science is fun, because all the Target kids are smiling," Finley tells visiting students.

Proviso West has 2,350 students, and 700 come through the gym for career day. Though a suburban school by geography, this is an urban school in character, facing many challenges in common with big-city schools. The dropout rate of 9.2 percent is higher than the Illinois state average (6.2 percent) and more than twice as high as for some schools in neighboring communities. The school's composite score on ACT (American College Testing) college entrance exams is 20.3, below the state average (23.1). Less than half its graduates (40 percent) go on to attend four-year colleges, though another 20 percent go on to two-year colleges.

But as in particle physics, energy is a key factor. Physics and chemistry teacher Bozena Suwary, who recently issued an assignment involving the energy efficiency of students' homes, asks how she can arrange a tour, because "my students are always asking when we can go to see Fermilab."

 Fermilab physicist Dave Finley(right) shares his view of science with Proviso West students Finley says about a dozen students he meets are genuinely interested in science as a career, and "seem capable of pulling it off." One of them is Fallyn King, a senior, who has sent out her college applications and is awaiting replies.

Fallyn hopes to major in physics at Northwestern University--where her older sister, Terez, is a graduate student in physics, and coincidentally working at Fermilab's DZero detector while hoping to earn her doctorate.

"I'm really interested in physics," Fallyn says. "When I took physics last year, I really enjoyed learning about atomic structure, and I especially enjoyed doing electricity experiments."

Before career day winds up at noon, Finley runs out of the plastic Fermilab rulers he has been handing out. He also runs out of copies of FERMINEWS, and of its reprinted reading list, "Particle Physics for Regular People" (one copy goes to Proviso West principal Richard Clish, with Finley saying "here's how to stock up the school library").

The chairman of Proviso West's science department, Robert Stettler, called Fermilab's Education Office, which arranged the appearance. Dianne Engram is manager of the Lab's Equal Opportunity Office, which coordinates the Target program. Through its Speakers Bureau, Fermilab's Office of Public Affairs also maintains a database of scientists who are interested in volunteering their time, and matches availability with requests.

"I really did enjoy listening to these students, and I'd do it again if the opportunity presents itself," Finley says at the end of the day. "I wanted to do this because informing the public about what we do with their money is a responsible thing to do. If anything, we need to spend more time informing the public. I'm not sure what I expected today, but I have to say it was a success."

last modified 12/3/1999   email Fermilab