150 students get real-world research experience over summer

Students in the 2018 Summer Research Internship Program

Soon after completing their junior year of high school, 150 students from NCSSM’s residential and online programs and two guest students from the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts, moved in to campus and began one- to five-week research experiences pursuing their chosen area of interest in STEM and humanities.

For students, a compelling feature of NCSSM’s Summer Research Internship Program is that “they don’t have the distraction of classes and homework,” says Dr. Sarah Shoemaker, director of the program. “In a few short weeks, they get up to 175 contact hours, so it’s a very intense and focused experience.”

Students found the experience transformational.

“I was able to learn as I did,” one reflected. “Instead of reading a textbook and taking a test on the content, I was able to actually see the concepts that I was learning in action. I learned so much about different techniques and technologies used in molecular biology research. I also became more comfortable working within a professional environment.”

More than 80 students worked in university labs and other workplaces side by side with researchers around the Triangle, including at N.C. State University, Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. Central University, and RTI International, and at the N.C. Research Center in Kannapolis. Skill development and student success were assessed through weekly individual meetings and assignments by mentorship and research instructors, and feedback on students’ on-site performance was provided by the research mentor. Lead instructor Chris Thomas is in his second summer of successfully implementing competency-based methods to encourage students to recognize their growth and learning throughout the experience.

The other 70 students worked on NCSSM’s campus, where they developed their own research questions to pursue under the guidance of faculty mentors, including Jon Bennett, Michael Bruno, Floyd Bullard, David Cantrell, Keethan Kleiner, Kim Monahan, and a visiting faculty member, Todd Lee, from Elon University.

“I gained insight on what it was to be a real mathematician,” one student said. “We combed through math journals and textbooks to find problems that interested us. In addition, my group had to delve into topics that we had no prior knowledge about. Most importantly, my love for math was renewed.”

As each of the programs wrapped up, students had the opportunity to communicate their findings to the NCSSM community. (To learn more about students’ work, see the program from the July 20 Summer Research Symposium.)

Students had many options available to them, including Summer Research in American Studies and Humanities, Summer Research in Mathematics, Summer Research in Physical Science – Physics, Summer Research in Physical Science – Chemistry, Research in Computer Science (new at NCSSM for the first time this year), N.C. Central University: NSF Center of Research Excellence/NASA University Research Center, and Glaxo Summer Research Program in Biology. Additional opportunities with research mentors around the Triangle and in Kannapolis were offered for a total of 35 different research experiences spanning a wide variety of research fields.

Twelve students participated in the Glaxo program in biology, where students researched cyanobacteria, biofilms, and silkworms. Students were tasked with designing their own projects and gained real-world scientific skills and experience as they learned to troubleshoot, experiment, and present at lab meetings.

“I think research is important because of the experience it provides students and the confidence it gives them to go out and ask questions themselves,” says Kim Monahan, who led that program.

Monahan believes that experimenting let students foster their own individualistic scientific thoughts and ideas, which many students said allowed them to grow and learn.

“The experience really helped me get out of my comfort zone, and I learned a lot by experiencing setbacks and troubleshooting through them,” says rising senior Robert Landry.

Math instructor Floyd Bullard and Elon University mathematician Todd Lee teamed up to lead the Research in Mathematics program.

Students were divided into groups, given math journals to peruse, and encouraged to create their own unique math problems. Bullard says this kind of independent thinking is critical because it provides students with a sense of academic confidence.

“A lot of students finish high school with an incorrect view of math,” Bullard says. “Students need to understand that simply having math skills isn’t enough. They need logic to solve high-level math problems.”

Students explored a variety of mathematical subjects, and one group developed a coin flipping game.

“We started out with game theory but ended up working with statistics, conditional probability, and data stimulations,” says rising NCSSM online senior Zachary Bonds. “I learned a lot and had a lot of fun as well. The program taught me math isn’t just about studying or learning something; it’s also about adding to what you have learned.”

Grace Bassett, who also worked on the coin flipping game, says: “We tried to prove a winning strategy. We took a lot of routes that led to dead ends, but this led me to discover my passion for statistics and probability.”

Another group developed a magic square, where the product of every row, column, and diagonal is equal. The group was able to create a template, prove that they had a method of generating a magic square, and establish some properties of a magic square.

“Students were successful, and they did some really amazing math,” Bullard says. “I believe they learned a lot from this experience, and I even learned a few new things.”

Dr. David Cantrell of the humanities research program is passionate about helping students understand their relation to history and the outside world.

“It is critical to give students a glimpse of human struggle and their relation to the struggle,” Cantrell says. “Our task is to engage students in the very difficult work of self-fulfillment. Helping students understand that the world they see is something that has been created is critical because this can help them better understand themselves.”

During their two weeks together this summer, Cantrell guided students to several historical sites such as the Stagville Plantation in Durham, a textile mill in Glencoe, and a Native American trading path in Hillsborough.

“The Stagville Plantation was very engaging,” says rising senior Nathan Ostrowski. “We found many captivating objects such as a baby’s footprint on a chimney. Exploring these sites allowed me to form a relationship with my surrounding environment and gain a deeper understanding of the world.”

Students also visited the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Art in Winston-Salem, which rising senior Rachel Niemira called “amazing. It was an invaluable experience to learn about the beauty of the history of art and think about how it all came to be.”

Cantrell believes experiences like these can help students formulate research questions.

“The purpose of the summer program is to excite interest,” he says. “Exploring sites like these are a great source for research.”

Summer research has been an integral part of the NCSSM experience for more than 660 students over the past six years thanks to funding from the NCSSM Foundation, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and GlaxoSmithKline.

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