Brookhaven Lab Integrates the Rising STEM Scholars Program

Over the last few years, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory has provided resources for students, especially those in underrepresented demographics and underserved communities, to map out clear, defined pathways to careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). As a way to give students the resources and momentum to embark on a deeper exploration of their interests throughout high school, Brookhaven Lab’s Office of Educational Programs (OEP) began hosting the DOE Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS)-funded Rising STEM Scholars program.

Bridging the gap

Rising STEM Scholars is a follow-up to the STEM-Prep Summer Institute, a four-week program that introduces high school freshmen from traditionally underrepresented and underserved communities to STEM fields. The new program bridges the gap between the more exploratory STEM-Prep Summer Institute, where different scientific areas are introduced in week-long modules to all participants, and the more hands-on High School Research Program (HSRP), which gives students an authentic research experience and exposure to the way that science is approached at national laboratories.

“STEM-Prep participants are invited to participate in the Rising STEM Scholars program the following summer and, after successfully completing the program, they are automatically accepted into the HSRP,” explained Aleida Perez, Supervisor of Student Research and Citizen Science within OEP. “This year, there were seven students in the HSRP from last year’s Rising STEM Scholars program, and we hope to see that number continue to grow in the coming years. We also hope that these programs lead them to apply for the Department of Energy’s college internships, which include the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) and Community College Internship (CCI) programs.”

The Rising STEM Scholars program is a great opportunity for these students to build scientific computing skills, get exposure to the people and culture of the Laboratory, and explore scientific interests before engaging in the more intensive HSRP and SULI programs that follow.

Building a foundation

“The Rising STEM Scholars program brought the Lab to us,” recalled Maxwell Cabrera, former Rising STEM scholar and HSRP student learning about engineering in the Collider Accelerator Department (C-AD). “We each received a Raspberry Pi computer with a sensor kit to work with for an experiment. It gave me something interesting to do, especially during the pandemic. I was going outside to collect leaves as samples and learning to code in order to operate the sensors. I learned how to conduct research, collect data, and present our findings, which helped prepare me for the HSRP. I really enjoyed being a part of both programs.”

Rising STEM Scholars get a feel for what it’s like to work within a STEM field in a laboratory setting by engaging in hands-on computational science projects and getting an in-depth introduction to a particular Laboratory facility and the research that happens there. Last year, for example, students were given an overview of the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II). Along the way, students are given opportunities to meet staff and learn about their work through lectures and panel discussions as well as connect with HSRP students and SULI interns. The Rising STEM Scholars program eases students into the more independent framework of the HSRP and allows them to maintain their connection with the Lab as they consider their future.

“There is a lot of education that happens between choosing a career in STEM and then engaging in it. It’s nice to have a window into what that career could look like before starting down that path,” said Dan Olds, PDF Beamline Scientist at NSLS-II and mentor.

“I got a very in-depth look at how scientists operate in their day-to-day work and picked up a lot of hands-on skills that I can use in the future, especially related to coding, which is integral to so many of the areas I’m interested in,” said Donal Akerele, a former Rising STEM scholar and HSRP student researching accelerator physics in C-AD. “My mentor, Sergei Seletskiy, gave me and my research partner a lot of autonomy with our programs. He gave us a general basis to start from and showed us how everything worked, even gave us a base template to build from. I collaborated on a program for the profile monitor, which is used to measure different aspects of the beam, like length, intensity, and the number of particles.”

While seeing what researchers work on is an integral part of these programs, seeing how they work is just as, if not more, important. Learning to rely on your team, finding and utilizing the appropriate resources, and formulating the right questions are all important skills that may get overlooked in courses that are strictly focused on the science. These high school programs also give students a peek at operational research facilities and the routines of the people who work there.  

“You’re on your own when you’re studying science, but real scientific work is very collaborative,” explained Olds. “We have colleagues to go to and places to look for answers. Working with other people is the key to success.”

“We looked at the big picture first, together, and then dove into the details,” explained Shadia Suha, an HSRP student and former Rising STEM Scholar learning about artificial intelligence and machine learning. “There were questions we couldn’t approach on our own, though, even if we were fed each step, but we could find the answers by asking the right questions and relying on mentors—and even fellow students—to point us in the right direction.”

“The few weeks that these high school programs run is enough time to expose students to the work you do and let them know how they can get involved in the future,” said Russel Feder, Chief Mechanical Engineer for CA-D’s sPHENIX detector and mentor. “While SULI students have the time to dig into more in depth projects, like designing new parts of our piping system, the HSRP students are laying down the foundation for work like this. Max, for example, is learning to use computer-aided design programs, which are crucial in engineering. As a student, he gets access to all the features of the program, so he’s doing structural analysis of beams and the forces put on them, he can really dig into the details.”

Lasting impressions

The benefits of mentorship go both ways. Students are able to preview what a STEM career is like, and mentors get to break up their routine and do something fulfilling.

“I’ve benefited from having good mentors that had a significant impact on me and getting me to where I am today,” said Carlos Soto, an associate computational scientist in the Computational Science Initiative (CSI) and mentor. “It was very rewarding to switch into that role. It’s fun to feel the excitement again. A lot of us have gotten into a rhythm at work, which is not a bad thing, but it’s nice to take a step back and look at things from the fresh perspective of somebody who is having these experiences for the first time. I encourage anybody interested in mentorship to take part in that excitement.”

“It’s satisfying to see where students go after they graduate, having them come back for advice on what to do and where to go next. It’s more satisfying than seeing them complete a technical project at the end of the program here,” said Feder. “As a public institution, giving back to our community feels good. You get to geek out with a young person and help make the field more inclusive.”

Even if students don’t pursue the field they explored, this program gives them a perspective that can help guide them into an area of STEM that excites them, builds confidence in their abilities, and influences their choice of academic coursework. It opens the doors to more intensive mentorship and internship opportunities at the lab and shows them that this is a place where they can succeed, be represented, and know that they belong.

“At the high school level, students have a lot of opportunities open to them, and many feel some anxiety about having to make decisions about their future. I think it’s important that we shape these types of programs in a way that doesn’t make students feel locked in, but instead makes them feel like it’s an opportunity to explore concepts and ideas to find their own way through their own interests,” said Soto.

There are plans to grow the Rising STEM Scholars program in both scale and reach with new support from the DOE WDTS office. It has started as a local program enlisting students from schools in the radius of the Laboratory, however, there are plans to grow it statewide in the short term and make it a national program in the longer term. In growing this program, Brookhaven Lab aims to partner with initiatives like the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) to ensure that these opportunities are presented in an equitable way. The program also hopes to resume more in person tours, lectures, collaborations, and hands-on projects.

“We want these students to dig their own rabbit holes and then go down them,” said Olds. “Even if they run out of time before a project is complete, they’ve sparked that interest, they have that vision, the project has become their own. That’s success to me.”

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov

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