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Tinkering with their minds

Program aims to get students into scientific research early

Kim Reinhold gave up a summer of swimming and dancing in her home in Hawaii to hole up in a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Over the past five weeks, Reinhold, 16, has pursued her interest in artificial intelligence by spending some 40 hours of daylight a week in front of a computer screen.

''I love it," said Reinhold, who developed a computer algorithm that scientists in her lab hope will be useful in teaching machines common sense. ''Working this summer has shown me that there are a lot of possibilities in the field I'm interested in. And it's really not that boring to sit in front of a computer for eight hours a day programming."

Reinhold is one of 53 rising high school seniors participating in a summer program at MIT that allows them to work on research projects in Boston labs. The Research Science Institute aims to sell some of the nation's most talented science students on research careers at a time when there is a shortage of US-trained scientists.

''We really try to take the best of the best, give them the best resources, and give them an experience that will move them along in science," said Matt Paschke, director of the program, which also includes 22 foreign students and is sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Education.

The number of US jobs requiring science and engineering skills is increasing almost 5 percent a year as the number of Americans in those fields is declining, according to a report released this year by the National Science Foundation's National Science Board.

The United States has been able to sustain its science and engineering workforce by relying on foreign-born scientists. In 1990, 24 percent of scientists and engineers working in the United States with doctorates were foreign-born. By 2000, that proportion had increased to 38 percent, the report says.

But as other countries develop science programs that compete with the United States for students and as tightened security makes it more difficult to get US visas, the number of foreign scientists in the United States is expected to drop.

''The nation's economic welfare and security are at stake," the report warns.

National scientific progress could stall if the trends continue, specialists said.

''Is there a science crisis?" said Shirley Malcom, head of education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. ''Not right now, but one is looming."

It is in the nation's schools that an interest in science can either flower or fade, but the Research Science Institute students painted a bleak portrait of American science education.

They said they had teachers who told them that telekinesis, moving objects with one's mind, was a proven phenomenon or that they should make up lab data instead of performing the experiment. In an entire year, several students said, their science classes spent four hours or less conducting laboratory experiments.

''The way labs are taught is so bad," Reinhold said. Rather than explain the science behind an experiment, she said, teachers ask students to follow the directions by rote. ''It's like an arts and crafts project," she said.

Labs are essential for cultivating scientific curiosity, said Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

But budget cuts, increased standardized testing, and national learning standards that focus heavily on English and mathematics mean that science education gets put ''on the back burner," he said.

''We're doing our students a disservice," he said.

In Massachusetts, students are required to pass 10th-grade MCAS tests in English and math to graduate, but do not yet have to pass similar tests in science.

So summer programs such as the one at MIT and others that place Boston high school students in local labs have stepped in to fill the gap. Last week, more than 100 Boston students from nine of the city's summer science programs, some of which aim to increase minority representation in the sciences, gathered at Harvard Medical School. ''You all are the future of our country," Harvard's president, Lawrence H. Summers, told the students.

There are indications that such programs do spur more students to become scientists.

Most of the Research Science Institute's students end up in research careers, Paschke said, and many in this year's group said they were leaning that way.

''This has shaped my entire perception of research," said Joline Fan, 16, of her experience researching the use of nanoparticles for gene therapy.

But supplementary science programs are only part of the solution, specialists say. For one, many students opt out of research once they reach college, even at a science powerhouse like MIT.

''At some four-year liberal arts colleges, students don't always get to see what a life in research is really like," said Frank Solomon, an MIT biology professor. ''But our guys do. And they walk away."

Solomon said his students worry about the lack of job security, the long hours, and the long road to independent research. Few get graduate degrees in science. Solomon advocates overhauling graduate-student training and employment so the best students don't stray.

That nearly happened to Scott Fruhan, 23, of Newton. Fruhan began working in a Harvard immunology lab in high school and became a finalist in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search. But as an undergraduate at Harvard, he was exposed to new fields that competed with his scientific interests.

Going to college was ''a kid-in-a-candy-store effect," he said.

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