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Stanford Earth Young Investigators high school internship program goes virtual

Stanford Earth’s summer internships have been redesigned from in-person, one-on-one mentorships to an online lecture series due to COVID-19 restrictions. An unexpected side effect is that more local high school students are being exposed to research opportunities in the environmental sciences than ever before.

Laptop with geyser on screen
Image credit Stefan Nikolovski Unsplash

In March, more than 160 local high school students submitted applications for several research internships offered by the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). The applicant pool would typically be whittled down to a final selection of 10 to 20 students for one-on-one mentorships in geology, environment or energy for the Stanford Earth Young Investigators program. Instead, more than 90 of these high schoolers are logging onto the school’s new online education program three times a week to learn about research at the college level without ever leaving home.

“My goal is to introduce local kids who are interested in the fields that we study,” said program Director Jennifer Saltzman. “Because the labs are closed, we couldn't do the one-on-one mentoring on campus, but I wanted to give students an opportunity to continue to learn.”

Saltzman initially delayed sending out acceptances because of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19. Finally, in May she reached out to the applicants and asked them what topics they would like to know more about if an online alternative became available. The topics students ranked highly, including climate change and the pandemic itself, are now being covered by Stanford Earth scientists in virtual sessions conducted Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Learning about the outdoors while sheltering indoors

At the end of the first week of lessons, the pink bedroom of Andrea Hayden Liwanag is just one of almost 100 colorful “Brady Bunch” style video windows that float over the featured speaker on a Zoom screen. The rising sophomore applied to the geology track of the Young Investigators program because of her interest in rocks and earthquakes – and because it was one of the few summer internship opportunities close by. While she expressed some disappointment at not being able to experience the lab or research aspects, Liwanag is enjoying meeting other students from all around the Bay Area in virtual breakout sessions.

Map of tropical cyclone paths
In a lecture with Morgan O'Neill, students learned about how to define, forecast and uncover the physics and chemistry of hurricanes. (Image credit: National Weather Service)

“I'm excited that I got into the program,” she said. “This way, you're able to still learn new things over the summer because you can't really go out and go to summer school.”

In one session, the students learned the history and applications of lithium-ion batteries in a presentation by Simona Onori, an assistant professor of energy resources engineering; watched a video about the sustainability of rice from Aria Hamann, a doctoral student in Earth system science and a Fulbright scholar; and took a virtual tour of a geochemistry lab given by the Environmental Measurements Facility Technical Director Guangchao Li. Earlier in the week, they covered hurricanes, oceanography and climate impacts of Arctic ecosystems.

“The students seemed to pay really close attention because their questions were strikingly insightful – the same sorts of questions I’m working on myself,” said Morgan O'Neill, an assistant professor of Earth System Science who led a lecture on climate and hurricanes.

If I had been able to participate in a program like this, maybe it wouldn’t have taken me so long to switch to atmospheric science.

When a question is posed by an instructor, the high-schoolers take to their keyboards, causing the chat response bubbles to blitz across the screen. Alternatively, they can type questions at any time without interrupting the speaker.

I wonder if an in-person meeting would have had less participation because it would take more work to raise one's hand and wait to be called upon,” said O’Neill. “In a chatroom, there’s no waiting.”

Saltzman said she is pleased that the students' interest and curiosity have survived the transition to a virtual format intact. “That to me is the success of the program,” Saltzman said. “They're asking, they're talking, they're listening.”

The take-home, for those at home

Stanford Earth’s internship program has had to change in other ways to accommodate the times. One part of the program, the Biodiversity track, has been able to continue with a dozen research internships by having participants learn to code and analyze data from home instead of on campus. The students then join their peers in the education program’s lectures.

Other aspects that Saltzman has been able to maintain include a panel of undergraduate students from both Stanford and other universities, some of whom took part in the Young Investigators program in previous years, as well as participation in the American Geophysical Union’s annual fall meeting, which usually takes place in San Francisco but will likely also be virtual this year. Both experiences provide high schoolers with additional insights into research at the college level and beyond.

It could be that in future years, the program will maintain elements of the virtual curriculum even when in-person meetings are safe to resume. “I want to see what resonated with the kids this summer,” Saltzman said, “to continue helping young people understand how to become a scientist and to keep thinking about how we as a school serve our local community.”

O’Neill, who initially pursued theoretical physics before studying climate, said, “If I had been able to participate in a program like this, maybe it wouldn’t have taken me so long to switch to atmospheric science.” High schooler Liwanag said she would definitely apply again, and plans to recommend the program to incoming freshmen at her high school in San Jose.

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Students on hike

A cohort of the Stanford Earth Young Investigators program helped advance our understanding of the relationship between the body size and circulatory systems of marine animals over a vast time frame.

Media Contacts

Danielle T. Tucker

Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

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