Science program helps six Milken grads head to MIT

Six graduates from Milken Community High School’s 2008 class will enroll this fall at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a campus that features among its alumni 26 Nobel laureates, more than one-third of all U.S. astronauts and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The academic pressure at MIT is notorious, and one of the Milken grads, Richard Dahan, spent some time this summer warming up with a rigorous study program in preparation.

Dahan has always been interested in math and science, he said, but it was Milken’s Mitchell Academy of Science and Technology (MAST) and the program’s director, Roger Kassebaum, that provided him with the discipline and the opportunities to explore, which helped him get into MIT.

“What made MAST great was not only that it exposed me to various technical fields in such extreme depth, but also that it transformed my interests in those fields into passions,” said Dahan, who plans to study mechanical engineering and management.

MIT received more than 13,000 applications from students for fall 2008, of which it accepted less than 12 percent. Milken’s impressive showing of six graduates from its class of 2008 includes four from one family — Richard Dahan, along with his three siblings Daniel, Sara and Robin — and Neta Batscha and Stephen Hendel.

Milken’s success in placing students at MIT, as well as other prestigious universities, speaks well of the academic strides the school is making through its Centers of Excellence, which include the Advanced Jewish Studies Center and the Stephen Wise Music Academy. But even more impressive is that the science and technology academy is a center in name only. The students spend time doing research in real-world labs, rather than trying to replicate the experience in a classroom.

“We spend money on kids, not bricks,” said Kassebaum, the man whom many MAST students credit with helping to make their higher-ed dreams come true.

Established in 2003 with financial help from the Edward D. and Anna Mitchell Family Foundation and the Kayla Mitchell Foundation, MAST has taken an active role in moving students beyond the classroom.

“One of the things we were really committed to when we started the academy is that kids were not going to fit into the typical box of science classes,” said Jason Ablin, Milken’s head of school.

MAST features several short-term tracks for learning (robotics, physics and engineering) with competitions, but most of the center’s energy is directed toward a three-year science research course that encourages students to work in laboratories in the United States and Israel. Currently there are 30 students in the three-year track. Once premier students reach their senior year, they prepare their research for the national Intel Talent Search, the top science competition for high school students.

While MAST students so far have achieved semifinalist placing in the Intel competition, in 2007, graduating seniors Michael Hakimi and Talia Nour-Omid won the first-ever X PRIZE competition for high school students for developing a model for biomonitoring sunglasses to keep space travelers healthy during civilian spaceflight.

Both students will attend USC this fall. While Nour-Omid will study computer science, Hakimi’s interests lie in business. He applied scientific research principles to market analysis, writing a paper for the Intel competition on the effects of terrorism on financial markets.

Kassebaum said the students who enter MAST are mostly average kids who are encouraged to discover what excites them.

“They are given free rein. There’s no teacher holding them back,” he said. “In science research there’s no limit. Their job is to find the edge of their field of interest.”

Once students’ areas of interest are narrowed and they feel comfortable reading articles in scientific publications, they can approach— or “begin almost stalking,” as Kassebaum put it — graduate students about working beside them in a university lab environment.

Batscha, who will attend MIT and will likely study bioengineering, worked at a Cal State Northridge microbiology lab to see whether she could use single-cell microorganisms, called methanogens, to improve ethanol production from plant waste. “I wanted to do something that could impact the world,” she said.

While the experiment didn’t yield the desired results, Batscha did discover that methanogens could be grown with yeast.

MAST student Hendel, who is bound for MIT, spent time at UCLA studying how chemical changes in DNA can play a role in the development of the central nervous system. “I was interested in manipulative genetics and silencing genes and looking into that research,” he said.

Although his paper wasn’t published, he said a graduate student was able to use his research in a project.

While the program can be a time-consuming, stressful addition for students who try to balance the demands of school with the college application process, MAST participants all speak glowingly of the program’s director and the support he provides.

Kassebaum, who is not Jewish, has been with Milken for nine years. He taught for 22 years at Millard North High School in Omaha, Neb., where he won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching in 1991, among other honors. After Kassebaum received a Milken Educator Award from the Milken Family Foundation in 1997, Milken Community High School implemented some of his teaching methods and then began actively pursuing him to join the school.

Since co-creating the Mitchell Academy in 2003 with support from former Milken head of school Rennie Wrubel, Kassebaum has regularly encouraged students to choose their own interests and helped them organize their research.

For Richard Dahan, who was in the science academy with his brother, Daniel, and sister, Robin, trying to make a distinction between Kassebaum and MAST would be difficult.

“He is what makes the academy special. Aside from his unparalleled dedication to every MAST activity — whenever we stayed at Milken until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. to work on a project, he was right there with us — he also brought an amazing attitude and always guided us in the right direction,” Dahan said.