by June Portnoy
This past summer, Yardley resident Marisa Millenson, a senior at Pennsbury High School, was among 72 students chosen from 667 applicants from around the world, and the first student ever to be selected from her high school, to participate in the Summer Science Program (SSP). Now in its 53rd year, SSP is one of the oldest and most prestigious pre-college science programs. It’s a residential, non-credit enrichment program that challenges academically gifted students, and is held annually in California and New Mexico.
Marisa joined 35 other top students from mid-June through the end of July on the campus of Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA. SSP immerses these bright teenagers in a rigorous, fast-paced academic environment over the course of five weeks that encourages collaborative learning and personal growth. By day, students learn college-level astronomy, physics, calculus and programming. By night, working in teams of three, they take a series of telescopic observations of a near-earth asteroid and write software to convert those observations into a prediction of the asteroid’s orbit around the sun. The main focus of the summer program is this asteroid orbital determination project.
“Each group was assigned its own asteroid to observe and its own observation time,” explains Marisa, who was assigned the latest session from 1:00am until 3:00am. “We had to stay in our given group the entire five weeks because our assigned asteroid was only visible during our specific session time.”
Students used a Meade 14-inch CCD-equipped telescope, which belonged to SSP, as well as Westmont’s 24-inch Keck telescope.
“To see our asteroid, we went to the top of a hill that overlooked soccer fields,” says Marisa, who had never seen an asteroid before this program. “These open fields below us enabled us to get a clear view of the sky.
“We took lots of images of the asteroids. Since asteroids move faster than background stars, over time you can see the movement of the asteroids compared to the background stars.
“This project required a real collaborative effort between the three of us in our group because we depended on each other. We each brought our own strengths to the group in order to complete the project.”
Marisa adds that this was such a different experience than she ever had in any science course in school when “you’re simply doing labs while looking at a computer screen. In contrast, during this program, I went into the actual physical environment by observing the sky, much like real scientists do.”
Marisa admits that there were times when she didn’t think she’d ever complete all her assignments or her research project.
“I really surprised myself in what I was able to accomplish over the summer,” says Marisa.
“Sometimes you have to go outside your high school to push your limits,” adds Marisa’s mother, Amy Freedman. “Through this summer program, Marisa discovered that she could push herself farther than she realized. After completing this summer program, there’s no doubt in Marisa’s mind that she’ll be prepared for college.”
In addition to the many academic benefits of participating in this summer program, Marisa says she also learned to balance school with a social life.
“I could have easily let all the schoolwork eat me up, but I forced myself to socialize. Otherwise, I would have been totally overwhelmed.”
This socialization with the caliber of teens in this program had a very positive impact on Marisa.
“Being around so many intellectual people made a great impression on me,” says Marisa.
In addition, Marisa had the opportunity to live in the dorms at Westmont, giving her a taste of college life. The Summer Science Program ultimately was a perfect fit for Marisa, who has always done well in science. In eighth grade, she received the American Association of University Women Award in science. In 10th grade, she won the Physics Award, and last year, she won the American Chemical Society Award. As a result, it’s no surprise that Marisa plans to major in the physical sciences in college.
Both her parents are doctors and medicine is a likely route she might take. However, nothing is certain yet, which is why she is looking into a college with a good liberal arts program. Her top choices of colleges that she’s hoping will accept her are Brown and Swarthmore. However, whatever path Marisa travels, you can be sure that after her success at the Summer Science Program she will excel in whichever career she chooses.
For more information about the Summer Science Program, visit www.summerscience.org
PHOTO CAP: Marisa Millenson