Students at Palo Verde High School will have a chance next school year to help reunite families separated by the Holocaust.
They'll do it by assisting with the analysis of DNA samples from Holocaust survivors. And they'll aid in the creation of a virtual memorial, envisioned as a Facebook-style social networking site that could help survivors, separated by distance and generations from long-dispersed relatives, look for links in shared histories.
It's a chance for students to experience the real-world applications of the concepts they learn in the classroom as they partner with the University of Arizona's DNA Shoah (Holocaust) Project.
Technology giant HP selected the project for a grant valued at $265,000, which is designed to increase awareness of high-tech career opportunities and boost interest in math and science.
The award will provide mini-notebook PCs, graphing calculators, printers and new tablet PCs — the equivalent of digital notebooks that use a digital stylus instead of a keyboard or mouse, which will enable paperless interactions between students and teachers. The grant also will provide staff training to make sure the new gadgets don't sit in the corner of the classroom.
Although 25 school systems across the country received awards, Palo Verde, 1302 S. Avenida Vega, was the only Arizona school selected.
Biology teacher Kevin Kehl, the lead teacher on the grant, has spent most of his summers conducting scientific research, from studying ways to measure honeybee parasites to tracking giardia, a parasite that can cause intestinal illness.
He wants students to have some of those opportunities.
"What's exciting is that we're not 'playing' at science," said Kehl, who uses the term "citizen scientists" to refer to his students. "They'll be looking at real data. We'll be applying the concepts we're learning in the classroom and tackling a real-world problem."
Seventeen-year-old Zuleima Jimenez took Kehl's biotechnology research class last year and signed up again for her senior year. She said she's looking forward to the new project.
"I think it's a great opportunity for biotech students to learn to do more research," she said, adding it could help with college and possibly in future careers.
Jimenez, who has researched the Holocaust for previous history classes, said she also likes the idea of informing contemporary generations of students about what happened to the victims. "I like helping. That's my personality. I like helping others and learning about them."
Jimenez said the new equipment is going to be an improvement. "We'll be able to experiment more with technology. We had a bunch of old computers, and a lot of times we couldn't do much because of the programs we had," she said. "They were too slow or shut down, so it's pretty awesome that we've gotten the new computers."
A team of eight will take an interdisciplinary approach to the project, designed to go beyond the scientific work of processing saliva samples.
The Web site component, for example, may require interviewing survivors and sharing their stories, so English teachers may help students work on personal narratives.
Background information will be necessary for a successful interview, so social studies teachers will want to ensure that students know, for example, about concentration camps, such as Dachau. Geography will play a role as well, because students will need to know where Warsaw is and how that information may provide connections for others looking for relatives.
Kehl hopes the project might even heal some of the racial divisions that cropped up last year between some black and Hispanic students at Palo Verde.
"Those students look at each other and see their differences on the outside," he said, "but I'm hoping they'll see through this research that they're not really that different."
And because Palo Verde has a large number of refugee students, he hopes the teens also will make connections with the human impact of recent conflicts that have had ethnic or racial roots.
Barbara Fransway, the senior research specialist who is the laboratory supervisor for the DNA Shoah Project, said she was thrilled when Kehl approached her with the idea.
"They will contribute to the progress of the project, and we really value them as workers."
The high school students will do the same kind of work that UA students helping the project are doing, she said. And they'll get authentic experience in the biotech field while helping the community at the same time.
"I hope that even if they don't want to become scientists, they understand that even as young people, by having a purposeful action, they can become part of something bigger."