Ohio Students Take Siemens Tech Prize

Rochelle Rucker, a senior at Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, is part of a team that won the $10,000 prize at the annual Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology. The team's project measured the effects of atomic oxygen on spacecraft materials.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And now, we turn to an inspiring young lady. Rochelle Rucker is a senior at Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She's part of a team that won the $10,000 prize at the annual Siemens Competition in math, science and technology. Now the Siemens competition recognizes America's best and brightest math and science students from around the country.

Rochelle joins us now from member station WCPN in Cleveland, Ohio. Hi, Rochelle.

Ms. ROCHELLE RUCKER (Siemens competition Winner): Hello.

CHIDEYA: So, first of all, congratulations. And why don't you tell us a little bit about your winning project.

Ms. RUCKER: Well, our project was involved with material science. And what we did is we exposed a tray of plastics on the outside of the International Space Station. In that space environment there's something called atomic oxygen, which erodes away at the surface materials of spacecraft. And what our project did is it measured the amount of erosion on the materials. And this information can help future spacecraft designers design secure spacecraft to travel around the Earth.

CHIDEYA: Now that is a mouthful. And you're a senior in high school?

Ms. RUCKER: Uh-huh.

CHIDEYA: How did you decide to get into doing something that was this technical?

Ms. RUCKER: Well, our school has a science research program, and it connects students in the school with scientists around the area. So my school was able to establish a relationship with a branch of NASA near us called NASA Glenn Research Center. And I was able to go out there with my team members and work with engineers at NASA. So our school gave me this opportunity to perform such research.

CHIDEYA: Now tell me a little bit about your school.

Ms. RUCKER: Well, yeah. It goes through the Hathaway Brown School. It's an all-girls school. And what they do, they really encourage girls in math and science. So if my parents wanted me - when I go to school they don't want me messing around. They want me to stay focused and learn.

CHIDEYA: I went to public school, and I'm actually a big fan of public schools but some of them are very troubled. What's the difference that you find between the public schools that you went to before when you were younger and a school like Hathaway Brown, which sounds like it has a ton of opportunities for you to do really advanced research?

Ms. RUCKER: Well, I remember when I was attending public school the class sizes were really, really large and it was hard for the teacher to focus on certain students. So Hathaway Brown is - the class sizes are much smaller so teachers are allowed to give you individual attention. So if you need help in certain areas, they're there to assist you. And I think that in itself has helped me a lot.

CHIDEYA: What do your friends say about this, not just your friends perhaps from school but any friends from the neighborhood, or from church or any other context you're in, what kind of feedback have you been getting?

Ms. RUCKER: Usually they're just so surprised. They think it's almost unbelievable. And lots of times they kind of joke with me. They're like what have you done now? How many awards have you won now? They just always play with me and stuff so.

CHIDEYA: A lot of young people are struggling with peer pressure that says don't be academic, don't be focused, that makes you a nerd, that makes you someone who's not fun. What would you say to people out there who might have an interest in doing the kind of work that you've done but who feel like they're going to be cut out from the social herd?

Ms. RUCKER: Well, I think that you should never let what other people stand in the way of what you want to do. I think science and math are just great things because it just explains more about life. And lots of times having fun, that's what life is.

So if you want to study more about, you know, existing and being and how things work, that's what science and math does. So if you're interested in that kind of thing, it's just a part of life that you should definitely explore.

CHIDEYA: So you're graduating in June, and where are you going to college and what do you plan to study?

Ms. RUCKER: I plan to attend Case Western Reserve University here in Cleveland, and I think I'm going to probably stick with science. So I might explore certain careers such as biomedical engineering and maybe I might go into medicine, I'm not sure. But I'm keeping my options open and science research definitely is still going to be - remained focused on.

CHIDEYA: And of course you're a well-rounded person. Tell us what you do for fun besides math and science?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RUCKER: I like to read. I like to talk to my friends on the phone and online. I love to go see movies and, you know, sometimes you sit around, talk to my friends, not really doing anything, just mess around. Yeah, I like to hang and stuff like that.

CHIDEYA: All right, well, the hanging obviously hasn't gotten in the way of your tremendous accomplishments. Congratulations, Rochelle.

Ms. RUCKER: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Rochelle Rucker is a senior at Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She's part of a team that won the $10,000 prize at the annual Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology. And she joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland, Ohio.

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CHIDEYA: Just ahead, Condi Rice on efforts to bring peace to the Middle East and one writer says being called articulate is not a compliment.

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CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.

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