In a pristine biochemistry lab on the UCLA campus, a group of high school students crowded around researcher Gloria Turner to inspect a bright orange fungus growing inside a glass tube.
"Aw, cool!" said Omar Oliva, 16, when it was his turn to hold the tube and its odd-looking cargo, which Turner uses to study amino acid metabolism.
Others passed the tube with hardly a glance at its contents. But Omar turned it end to end, then looked around the airy lab, its gleaming benches and pipes snaking overhead. "If I don't make it with engineering," he told the white-coated researcher, "maybe I'll want to do this."
Turner nodded, smiling. "There's a lot still to be discovered in science," she said. "When you make your choices about what to do, think about what really excites you in school and then just ... go for it!"
These 19 students, most from families without a tradition of going to college, were taking part in an innovative, one-week immersion program to entice them to think about college and perhaps about careers in science and math. Most, like Omar, were from Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights or from Jordan High in Watts--schools in poor urban areas with low test scores, where many drop out.
Selected on the basis of good grades, steady attendance in school or a recent marked improvement in either area, the students spent a warm summer week at UCLA, living in the dorms and taking an intensive course in personal and career development. That was all free to them, along with a unit of college credit and even a $50 credit at the campus bookstore.
They met with professors and hung out with students. They learned about community colleges and how to transfer to four-year schools like UCLA. They took tours of the Westwood campus and made excursions to its bookstore, computer labs and ocean discovery center at the Santa Monica pier.
Both in the classroom and outside it, the program's message was clear: Dream. Work hard. Go to college. Think ahead. And almost anything is possible.
"We give them a taste of university life and a lot of tools and support," said Maria Elena Yepes, director of the learning assistance center at East Los Angeles College, which sponsors the program, along with UCLA. "And we tell them over and over again that they have the ability; they can do this."
The maxim seemed to be sinking in.
By the second day, Christian Gama, 17, who said he had never really considered anything but community college, was starting to dream about UCLA. A spiky-haired senior at Jordan High, Christian said he wanted to study biology, perhaps, or oceanography.
"I really like this campus," he said. "It's a beautiful campus, and it makes you feel great just to be here."
Funded primarily with federal grant money through the city of Los Angeles' Youth Opportunity Movement, the math-science immersion program is one of a number of efforts at UCLA, USC and other area schools to ease the often difficult path to college for students from tough neighborhoods and underachieving schools.
In many cases, Yepes said, the parents of such students are new immigrants or did not attend college themselves. They are often unable to help their children sort through the maze of requirements for high school graduation or college attendance.
Many of the students may think about going to college, but some aren't aware that they lack the tests or courses required to enroll at the schools of their choice, Yepes said.
This summer, East L.A. College and UCLA collaborated on several such intervention projects, including two sessions of the new math-science program for about 50 high school students, and another, for community college students, that is focused on humanities or social sciences.
Yet another on-campus program, this one a shared effort with West L.A. College, also began at UCLA this summer, said Alfred Herrera, director of UCLA's center for community college partnerships.
With several of the programs now in their fourth year, Herrera said he is pleased with their success, based on the responses of participating students and anecdotal evidence that a number of those who took part in the first few sessions are making their way back to UCLA as students.
Data to assess the programs' actual effects are being collected and will be available in a few months, Herrera said. "But it looks like we're starting to make a difference," he said.
And of course, Herrera said, it doesn't hurt to have UCLA, with its distinguished academics and sprawling, tree-studded campus, to provide inspiration to any who need it.
Other inspiration--and role models--for the students in the math-science program came from their peer mentors, many of whom transferred to UCLA from local community colleges. Instructor Daniel Ortega, now an East L.A. College counselor, provided still more. Ortega, 28, is an alumnus of both ELAC and UCLA.