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Middle School summer science program shows youth career possibilities

Heidi Smith, left, of the Family Eye Center, demonstrates how an optical path scanner is used with STEM-A Program student Cael Carlson as a patient. Tribune photos by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- The students crowded around the window for a better view as Dr. Jeffrey Fischer prepared a patient's eye for laser surgery.

The students in the Willmar Middle School STEM-A Program were eager to watch the surgery on a video monitor mounted on the wall behind Fischer. They were full of questions and comments for their tour guide, optometric assistant Heidi Smith.

Smith explained what Fischer was doing as he scraped the "skin" of the eye before using the laser to change the man's eye to improve his vision.

After the surgery, Fischer spoke briefly to the students and told them that it was cool to be interested in math and science. "It's really, really important," he said, "It's the foundation to everything we do."

Smith showed the students other diagnostic machines in the Fischer Eye Clinic/Family Eye Center in Willmar and explained how the different scans and measurements help the clinic provide treatment for patients.

The nine students on the tour were part of a 15-student group chosen for the program by Middle School teachers.

The STEM-A Program is in its second summer. Students going into seventh and eighth grades are chosen based on their aptitude for science and their state test scores, said Middle School science teacher John Kuznik. The name stands for science, technology, engineering, math and agriculture.

Kuznik, who organizes the program, said the plan is to give students some insight into what people do with a science or math education. It also shows them that there are jobs available in those fields in the area, too.

Students have toured Epitopix, at the MinnWest Technology Campus, where they worked with problem solving and learned some general lab techniques. At Anez Consulting, they did soil sampling and learned about bugs and when pesticides might be needed. "They interpreted the information that farmers do," Kuznik said.

The program is fairly informal, Kuznik said. Students come to as many tours as they can, but scheduling sometimes keeps them away. There is no cost to the students for the tours, but families must provide transportation to and from the tour sites.

Kuznik said the businesses have been willing participants in the program.

"They understand the importance of getting more kids into the science and math fields," he said.

Ingrid Lindgren, who will be a seventh-grader, said she has enjoyed the program. "It's cool," she said. "It's fun, because you get a lot of different experiences, and it's interesting." The tours don't always have to do with science or math either, she added.

Fischer visited with the students near the end of their tour again. He pointed out that they had seen biology, anatomy, computers and mathematical formulas used in the clinic. He explained that scans of patients' eyes put their measurements into mathematical formulas that help determine how the cool laser will be used later on.

The cool laser he uses for eye surgery was originally developed to cut computer chips, he said, and the other uses were discovered later.

"Listen to this guy," Fischer said, gesturing toward Kuznik. "Listen to your math teachers. ... Have fun and enjoy it."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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