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Young Scholars gain authentic research experience

8/16/2018

Julia Stackler

Kerene Kombe, left, and Neha Hebbar are rising juniors at Champaign Central High School. They conducted research in Nenad Miljkovic's lab this summer.
Kerene Kombe, left, and Neha Hebbar are rising juniors at Champaign Central High School. They conducted research in Nenad Miljkovic's lab this summer.
This summer, the Center for Power Optimization of Electro-Thermal Systems (POETS) celebrated its second year of running the Young Scholars Research Program, a summer experience for high school students that provides research participation and opportunities to advance their goals of pursuing higher education. The program aims to encourage scholars to feel comfortable in a university setting, form a science identity, and gain confidence in attending college.

During the six-week program, the scholars participated in a research experience at Illinois under the mentorship of a faculty member or graduate student. Scholars received one-on-one coaching and advising from a teacher mentor, and they participated in weekly seminars on topics like research projects, college readiness, and scientific communication. Teams also were exposed to bi-weekly POETS research seminars as well as community-building activities. The program concluded on July 27 with a campus-wide high school research symposium.

“With the Young Scholars program, we want to prepare at-risk youth for educational success in STEM degrees. We’re exposing high school students and their teachers to an authentic research experience while providing mentoring support beyond their summer experience. The students gain a socially connected, hands-on, inquiry-based learning experience while allowing teachers to gain a new perspective on this type of learning. We leveraged multiple partners, including excellent researchers within the POETS Center, partnerships with local high schools and non-profits, and education experts within the University of Illinois,” said Jessica Perez, Associate Director of Education and Inclusivity for the POETS Center.

When the Young Scholars program began in 2017, POETS, the Department of Physics (“PhYSics”), and the university’s previously established ResearcHStart program each funded several research projects, collaborating together on professional development programming for all Young Scholar participants. This year, with a supplemental grant from the National Science Foundation, POETS was able to explore a novel team-based approach and expand the number of students in its program. Additionally, the Department of Bioengineering (“SPHERES”) joined the Young Scholars program.

This summer, the POETS teams consisted of two high school students and a high school teacher, collaborating with POETS-affiliated faculty that included MechSE Assistant Professor Nenad Miljkovic and ECE Associate Professor Kiruba Haran.

Soumyadip (Deep) Sett, a postdoctoral research associate in Miljkovic’s research group, mentored a team that worked on a project called, “Fabricating and Characterizing Superhydrophobic Surface.” The high schoolers will be continuing their research project into the school year, with lab visits 1-2 days each month along with supplemental reading.

“I got involved as a mentor because this program gives a perfect platform to inculcate scientific research to young high school students. It also helped me to simplify research problem statements, and learn to guide students with no prior knowledge related to the subject to a definite project goal. Often, in day-to-day academic research among peers and sponsors, the virtue of being able to communicate our research in simple language is lost. Even though the program has officially ended, the students, the teacher-mentor and myself are meeting biweekly for several hours to continue the project that we started,” said Sett.

Ahmad Al-Juboory (middle) and DJ Jackson (right) are rising seniors at Champaign Centennial High School. They were mentored by graduate student Andy Yoon (right), in Kiruba Haran's lab.
Ahmad Al-Juboory (middle) and DJ Jackson (right) are rising seniors at Champaign Centennial High School. They were mentored by graduate student Andy Yoon (right), in Kiruba Haran's lab.
In Haran’s lab, the student team was mentored by ECE graduate student Andy Yoon, with Champaign Centennial High School physics teacher Jill McLean. They worked on “Characterizing Motors for an Electric Quad-Copter,” building a small-scale drone out of easily accessible parts and that is capable of being controlled with an iPhone.

“In terms of raw skills, the students advanced their understanding of coding, designing a program to control a brushless DC motor. They also were introduced to many capabilities of their phones that are hidden from most people, like controlling a drone. They learned to use Excel to organize and analyze data, which was measured using machines like oscilloscopes, stroboscopes, force sensors, ammeters, and balances. They learned to design structures using wood, robotics kits, and Tinkercad. But beyond skills, they learned how to research, how to learn on their own, how to learn from each other and their mentors, how to work within a team of people who have different strengths and talents. They saw what scientific research and experimentation is really all about, and that they can do it,” said McLean.

She said she hopes to recreate the spirit of experimentation in her science classes at Centennial—to allow for the frustration that is part of learning new things and often failing. The two students will continue to build and test their quad-copter, and Yoon, who won the “mentor of the summer” award, will provide guidance for the team throughout the school year.

The final motor that the students created by the end of the summer in Kiruba Haran's lab.
The final motor that the students created by the end of the summer in Kiruba Haran's lab.
Joe Muskin, Education Coordinator for POETS, said the sustained engagement after the completion of the program is one of the aspects that sets it apart. The students will continue the research over the school year, remaining engaged with their mentor and the lab. Their teacher will be involved with this research and coordinate with the research lab and the students.

Tom Gelsthorpe, a chemistry teacher at Champaign Central High School, was the Miljkovic team’s teacher-mentor, said the students gained confidence in their work as well as valuable experience presenting their work to an audience.

“This experience reminded me of how great this university and its people can be, as everyone was so welcoming and generous with their time and resources to help these Young Scholars further themselves on their paths toward careers in science. Getting firsthand experience in potentially groundbreaking research is something these students will never forget, and I'm glad I got to play a part in it,” he said.

POETS, an Engineering Research Center (ERC) funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), works to address the thermal and electrical challenges surrounding mobile electronics and vehicle design as a single system. Working with companies across the U.S as well as Howard University, Stanford University, and the University of Arkansas, the center hopes to enable the manufacture of lighter, more compact and more efficient power electronic systems for electric vehicles, airplanes, construction equipment, handheld tools, and other mobile applications. POETS is also dedicated to broadening the participation of and strengthening the K-20 STEM pipeline. Increasing STEM literacy is the overarching goal of POETS’ educational and workforce development effort, and the center organizes diverse education and outreach programs for pre-college students, undergraduates and graduate students.

Photos courtesy of the Young Scholars Program.