Program provides support for high school students

Louisiana at-risk youth had a special opportunity to learn more about the way their world works through a diverse group of activities at the LSYOU program this summer.

Assistant Professor of Environmental Sciences Crystal Johnson used zombies as a ways of teaching students about germs and epidemiology.

Louisiana State Youth Opportunities Unlimited, or LSYOU, is a program in the LSU College of Human Sciences & Education that collaborates with the School of the Coast and Environment and the College of Engineering to help at-risk students in high school by providing them with the tools and support they need to succeed.

Some of the more popular activities involved science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, disciplines in hands-on projects across campus.

LSU's Monique Johnson, a Ph.D. student in engineering science, impressed her "Math Equals Money" slogan into this year's LSYOU participants.

"The more math you know, the more money you'll make," she told the campers. "Math isn't hard. It's just all how you think about it. When things seem hard, you can bring it to a different level of thinking."

Monique Johnson walked the students through using simple geometry to calculate the square footage of a room – knowledge needed to buy new paint and install new flooring. The exercise proved it was possible to bring math to a different level of thinking by using simple equations.

In addition to the practical math lesson, Monique Johnson also introduced students to use AutoCAD, a software program used by architects, interior designers, engineers to design, draft and model.

"If we can teach them AutoCAD, they have a chance to succeed," Monique Johnson said.

After the students calculated the square footage of the room, she showed the students how to draw the room. Then it was the students' turn to start exploring. It didn't take long to see the impact the class had made. Within minutes, students were using AutoCAD to draw cars, flowers, and planets – just to name a few – with the basic skills that had been demonstrated. Even the students were impressed with what they had accomplished in only a short amount of time.

In addition to operating AutoCAD, students received hands-on engineering experience through the use of surveying equipment. Gabe Trahan, instructor in the College of Engineering, conducted a lab activity similar to one he does with college students in construction management. After teaching the students how to use simple math skills, students went outside to use surveying equipment to find the levels of various areas around the building.

Trahan gave the students real life building scenarios that required the precise measurements given by this equipment, such as building a house, building a playground or constructing a highway. Quite a few LSYOU students expressed an interest in becoming mechanical engineers after the AutoCAD and surveying activities.

LSYOU students in the "Zombie Cooties" class learned about different bacteria, the methods and rates at which they spread and how to prevent spreading germs.

Students were also able to explore LSU's Museum of Natural Science, located in Foster Hall. Instead of a typical museum visit, students were separated into groups and were able to investigate the entire museum with a trip to the research lab and a scavenger hunt.

The scavenger hunt involved hints that described animals throughout the museum's various exhibits. Valerie Derouen, the coordinator for LSU School of the Coast and Environment's EnvironMentors program, described how students were given alphabetical clues that led them to specific animals in the museum. EnvironMentors is a science and environmental science-based mentoring program that works to support and strengthen high school student success rates in science and environmental fields.

"All of the participants were excited to search for the animals and even more excited when they completed their hunt," said Derouen. "Hands-on projects break the monotony of a normal lecture and really trigger students' interest in science."

"The purpose of the tour was exposure," said Senior LSYOU Advisor Reese Craddock. "Each activity sparked a lot of interest, questions and discussions about topics they may have never been introduced to in their lives."

In another such activity, Assistant Professor of Environmental Sciences Crystal Johnson drenched herself in a mixture of corn syrup, red food dye and chocolate sauce for her "Zombie Cooties" project to teach the students about germs.

And while the 22 participants in the class looked like many young people do before a summer class – chatting loudly with friends or otherwise unimpressed with their surroundings – all that changed once a woman rushed into the classroom, face and lab coat covered in dirt and blood, carrying a tray of labeled vials.

"Zombie Cooties" aimed to not only inform students about different types of germs, but to also incorporate lessons from their math classes about exponents. Prior to the experiment, Crystal Johnson gave a presentation on different bacteria, the methods and rates at which they spread and how to prevent spreading germs. To demonstrate how easily an outbreak of "cooties" can occur, students chose test tubes, 21 filled with water and one filled with the "Z virus"—a light acidic mixture. After students exchanged the contents of their tubes with three different participants, Crystal Johnson tested each student's fluid with a pH detector to see if they had caught "cooties." Students reacted with shock and laughter as they watched the contents of test tubes transform from clear to bright purple, indicating someone had been infected.

Some of the more popular LSYOU activities involve the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, disciplines.

"It was fun being able to act like an epidemiologist for the ‘Z' outbreak," said participant Malik Everson. "I liked exchanging the mixture with my group and seeing how it reacted when someone was infected."

"I like the idea of working with students who otherwise might not consider growing up to be scientists," said Crystal Johnson. "If you can make science fun then you can capture students when they are young. Zombie Cooties brings science alive and lets them hold it in their hands. I absolutely love to see the light bulbs go on when students finally understand or appreciate a concept that their teachers have spent so many hours trying to teach them."

Each of the project leaders emphasized the importance of well-rounded educational support and exposure to STEM to help high school students in everyday life.

"Think of all the skills you have as tools in your life tool belt … use them to build yourself," said Monique Johnson.

"You can use your tool belt to separate yourself from other people. The carpenter who shows up to a job with the most tools in his belt is going to get the job."

"Having a good basis in STEM during your high school education sets you up for success in college, in your career, and in your life," said Derouen.

"STEM disciplines help humans fly airplanes, build bridges and ships; develop new antibiotics or anti-cancer drugs; understand health insurance requirements; develop better technology for cell phones and big screen televisions; and even stand up for themselves if pulled over by a police officer," said Crystal Johnson. "One student mentioned not wanting to be a scientist when he grows up but instead a rapper; he will still need to understand math if he wants to have a hand in managing his own money. A student does not have to go on to earn a Ph.D. in microbiology for the STEM disciplines to affect them."

The LSYOU program spans across the school year. During the five week summer phase, students are immersed in the program 24 hours a day, seven days a week and live in LSU residential halls. Students spend the first part of the day working on campus, gaining valuable work readiness skills, and earning money. After work, students concentrate on summer school classes in core educational subjects and enrichment classes focusing on anger management, family living, abstinence, and substance abuse prevention. Participants also have recreational time for sports, dance, choir, and arts and crafts. The program culminates in a graduation ceremony, held in the Bo Campbell Auditorium of the Cox Communications Academic Center for Student Athletes.

After completing the summer program, students are provided continued support from LSYOU. They are provided weekly tutoring sessions, state exam preparation, ACT/SAT practice, post-secondary education counseling and financial aid guidance.

For more information about the LSYOU program in the LSU College of Human Sciences & Education, visit

The College of Human Sciences & Education consists of the School of Education, the School of Human Resource Education & Workforce Development, the School of Library & Information Science, the School of Kinesiology, the School of Social Work and the University Laboratory School.

For more information about the College of Human Sciences and Education, visit; for more information about the School of the Coast and Environment, visit; and for more information on the LSU College of Engineering, visit