Five Pike County High School seniors recently completed the STEM Internship Program at UGA Griffin. This year-long program gives students the opportunity to participate in hands-on research with faculty on the UGA Griffin campus in exchange for high school honors credit. Pictured (l-r) are UGA Griffin STEM Coordinator Be-Atrice Cunningham, Victor Avila, Anna Edwards, Caitlyn Foster, Henry Glover, Davis Huber and Pike County High school Assistant Principal James Stanford.

Congratulations are in order for five Pike County High School seniors who recently completed the UGA Griffin Campus STEM Internship Program on Wednesday, April 14. The students -Victor Avila, Anna Edwards, Caitlyn Foster, Henry Glover and Davis Huber-spent the last school year conducting research on campus.

“Formally, these high achieving students can earn high school honors credit for participating,” said Be-Atrice Cunningham, UGA Griffin coordinator. “They also gain a wealth of information and personal experience, a rare opportunity for most high school students.”

The UGA Griffin Campus STEM Internship Program is done in collaboration with the Pike County STEM Academy, the first agriculture focused STEM Program in the state. It is designed to prepare high school seniors for post- secondary education and future careers in the STEM field. Students participate in unpaid internships on campus, completing 120 research internship hours each semester and deliver an oral presentation on their work in the fall and in the spring.

During this semester’s presentations, we first heard from Davis Huber, who worked with Dr. Zhenbang Chen in the department of Crop and Soil Sciences. Huber’s project dealt with Dollar Spot, a fungus that affects turfgrass by secreting a toxin that kills the grass and feeds on the other blades. He noted the spots of fungus are brown and roughly the size of a silver dollar, hence the name.

For his project, Huber aimed to come up with a more efficient way to screen different turfgrass cultivars for Dollar Spot resistance by doing so in a lab rather than in the field. Currently, to screen the susceptibility of a cultivar, researchers must plant large patches of turfgrass and monitor the symptoms after inoculating the test area. Huber took two types of turfgrass cultivars, one that is known to be susceptible to Dollar Spot and one that is known to be more resistant and inoculated them both with the fungus in the lab to compare how they reacted. The thought was if the susceptible cultivar showed more symptoms than the resistant cultivar, then the screening method would have been a success. However, Huber found that no experiment was sufficient to come to a direct conclusion.

Even though he did not get to his ultimate goal, Huber noted he learned a lot and would recommend the program to future STEM students.

“It really is important to come in and take in everything that you can and run with it. You get out as much as you put in,” said Huber.

Henry Glover and Caitlyn Foster worked with Dr. Dario Chavez in the department of Horticulture. Their project dealt with peach juice data collection where they tested the levels of sugar to find what they deemed the “super peach”- one that encompassed the most desired traits, such as sweetness and juiciness. To do this, the students collected data by noting when the fruit was harvested, the amount of sugar present, what variety the fruit was and which row and tree it came from in the field. They would then blend up the samples and use a centrifuge to separate the sugary liquid from the solid.

“Our main goal was to have everything ready for the researchers to come in and use,” said Foster. “Throughout our internship, we were able to test over 200 samples.”

Another aspect of the pair’s research was done in the peach orchard. There are over 500 different peach trees on the Dempsey Farm of the UGA Griffin campus and part of the students’ research dealt with the experimental design of the trees. They measured the trunk diameter, the tree height, and the canopy spread to help determine which offered the best design.

The final team of students presenting were Victor Avila and Anna Edwards who worked in the Food Product Innovation and Commercialization Center (FoodPIC) with Dr. Kirk Kealey. Instead of just one main project for the semester, the pair was able to work on several small projects such as shelf-life studies, client feedback, food tastings and touring a local food production facility.

Their biggest project of the semester was for a company named Rock House Creamery, located in Morgan County, Georgia. The company is known for having a gourmet chocolate milk which was created, in part, by former STEM interns, and they wanted to expand their business to have a quality chocolate milk that appealed to children. Avila and Edwards took the recipe for the company’s gourmet chocolate milk and performed many test batches, changing the percentage of each of the ingredients in the beverage before coming up with a satisfactory product.

“It showed us the trial-and-error aspect of FoodPIC,” said Edwards. “We learned how to develop a formula and how important of a role food science plays in our daily lives.”

At the close of the ceremony, Mr. James Stanford, Assistant Principal for Pike County High School, thanked the faculty and UGA Griffin for hosting the Pike STEM Internships each year.

“This is a wonderful program, and it provides students the chance to do research at a magnitude that we cannot provide on the high school level,” said Stanford. “The Pike STEM internship is an exceptional program, and we are grateful that it exposes students to these fields that they may not know about otherwise.”

Cunningham noted a natural relationship exists between UGA Griffin and the Pike County STEM Academy.

“The proximity of our campuses, the high academic ability of students and common focus on agricultural application of academic skills are the foundation of what has become a mutually beneficial relationship,” she stated. “UGA Griffin has access to the best and brightest students in Pike County schools, creating a STEM pipeline to UGA – this year 100 percent of the students who applied to UGA were accepted; and these students receive the best instruction and experiential learning experiences by working with university faculty.”