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Teens can spend summer session learning in ASU engineering labs

Keith Holbert High School Research
January 08, 2013

Last summer more than 70 teenagers were the first to benefit from the newly established High School Engineering Research Program that gives young students opportunities to learn under the direction of faculty members in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Expanding on the success of high school outreach efforts initiated by several faculty members, the program offers students half-day or full-day lab sessions over either four-week or eight-week time periods. It’s free to all students who meet basic qualifications (Arizona high school students who are 16 or older, with a minimum 3.0 grade point average). About 20 faculty members are opening their labs to these students.

Natalie Mionis was among the program’s inaugural group of student researchers in 2012. The junior at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale spent eight weeks last summer learning computer programming in the lab of Dijiang Huang, an associate professor in the School of Computer, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering.

Working Monday through Friday from 1 to 5 p.m., Mionis created her own photo-sharing application for Android devices, an app that allows users to take photos on their mobile devices and upload them to a wireless cloud network to be viewed by others.

It “was not your stereotypical research project – it involved a lot of creation and building,” said Mionis, who started the program with no prior knowledge of computer programming. By the end of her time in the lab, she had learned to read and write computer programming code.

Dominick Cocciola, a senior at Fountain Hills High School, participated in research involving neurology and electrical engineering. Working with Jennifer Blain Christen, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, Cocciola studied the nervous system by sending electrical signals through a cockroach leg and watching the movements generated by the signal.

“My research ended up being right in line with my interests,” Cocciola said. “I indicated my research interests at the beginning of the program and was matched with a perfect project.”

Cocciola worked with four other high school students with similar interests. “It really helps you understand what engineers do, in a fun way. And it’s a great way to meet people,” he said.

The experience made him certain about the direction he wants to take in college. Cocciola has since been accepted into the biomedical engineering program at ASU for the 2013 fall semester.

Carlos Alvarado and Raziel Amado, students at Bioscience High School in Phoenix, were selected for the program because of their interests in synthetic biology. They worked alongside graduate students on a project for ASU’s iGEM team, which was preparing for the International Genetically Engineered Machine contest, the premier international synthetic biology student competition.

Alvarado and Amado assisted in the design and development of a portable biosensor to detect water-borne, potentially disease-causing pathogens.

“It was a fantastic teaching and learning experience for both the iGEM team members and the high school students,” said Nisarg Patel, an ASU molecular bioscience and biotechnology graduate student. “Teaching the high school students about our own research helped us to better understand the techniques ourselves.”  

Keith Holbert, an associate professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, is among faculty members participating in the program. He directs research for high school students in the FREEDM Young Scholars pre-college program offered through the Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management Systems Center – called FREEDM.

The FREEDM Systems Engineering Research Center is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and industry partners, and based at North Carolina State University. ASU is a research partner in FREEDM.

Combining the FREEDM Young Scholars Program with the High School Engineering Research program “changed the dynamic in a good way,” Holbert explained, by allowing students the opportunity to see research being conducted by other students and to present their own work to other students.

The program gave about a dozen students from Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix the opportunity to work on campus five days a week for a month last summer. Their projects focused on renewable energy research designed to provide students a basic introduction to college-level studies in STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math.

Students got the chance to explore electricity generation, power transmission and distribution, and electricity distribution, as well as solar energy and hybrid cars.

They sought answers for such energy-related questions as: Which light bulb best conserves energy, incandescent, fluorescent, or light-emitting diode bulbs? They figured out answers in a “myth buster”- like fashion, said Holbert, “using critical thinking to investigate the everyday energy- related questions in a hands-on way.”

The learning activities included trips to the nearby Arizona Public Service Ocotillo Power Plant, ASU’s Gammage Auditorium and the ASU Art Museum. The field trips are “not just about engineering, but also about getting out and having fun,” Holbert said.

The program also provides a rewarding experience for faculty. “It’s great to see both education and maturity develop as students see concepts come together and face challenges like riding the light rail for the first time,”  Holbert said.

The High School Engineering Research Program includes closing ceremonies at which students present their research to fellow participants, faculty mentors and parents.

“I came away as a parent with a great respect for the engineering program at ASU for the level of involvement and openness by the faculty and administration toward the students,” said Anne Cocciola, mother of Dominick Cocciola. “Dominick definitely felt he was part of a scientific community at the college level.”  

The High School Engineering Research program is coordinated by the office of Academic and Student Affairs in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Learn more.

Written by Rosie Gochnour