Students in the Focused and Brilliant course assemble fiber optic devices.


Students Step Up at NCSSM

For a few days already, Micah Slaughter of Bandys High School in Catawba had been on NCSSM’s Durham campus, participating in a week-long summer engineering course focused on light and fiber optics. The course, called Focused and Brilliant, was part of the larger Step Up to STEM summer program, which since 2013 has welcomed underrepresented minority students from throughout the state for hands-on experiences in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). 

Having gained a basic understanding of the principles governing light and fiber optics, Micah was now ready to see them in action. On the table before him in NCSSM’s robotics and engineering lab was a small gadget he had assembled from wires, fiber optic cable, and hardware. A soldering gun and multimeter — tools he had used to build his device — rested on the table next to his creation. Ideally, the device would transmit his voice. 

Micah leaned over and spoke softly into the tiny microphone. “Hello?” he said. “Hi?”

In a chemistry lab across campus, fellow Step Up to STEM participant Mia Covington, from Riverside High School in Durham, was about to get a lesson in how you may not always be able to rely on your senses. Mia had chosen to spend her week in Step Up to STEM in another of the program’s three available tracks, this one focusing on the role of forensics in solving crimes and promoting justice. The course, aptly titled No Justice, No Peace, allowed students to explore forensics investigations, analyze data, and consider various types of evidence and new technologies in forensic science. 

Around the lab, other students were examining the reliability of sight by staring intently at playing-card sized images, or exploring how, with eyes closed, the sense of touch is altered or enhanced.

At Mia’s station, it was time for a sniff test. She lifted a small, plastic container filled with a clear liquid to her nose and drew it in. A flash of focus, and then bemused puzzlement, crossed her face as her olfactory system kicked in. She leaned in for another sniff. Then something registered. Smiling in recognition, Mia turned to her notebook and recorded what she had sensed as the mystery sample passed to others in her group.

Though not the most technical of applications, the sniff test still has a place in scientific inquiry.

Victoria Thompson from R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem was just down the hall in yet another Step Up to STEM course called Invisible Keys. She and her classmates were learning about cybersecurity, hacking, and invisible electronic threats faced daily by private individuals, companies, and governments. From the technical to the moral, ethical, and legal, there was so much to consider. How do you protect systems and devices against intrusion? Is it ever okay for authorities to secretly infiltrate an individual’s private digital life? How do you deal with someone who illegally enters a protected computer system without criminal intent to expose and highlight security flaws? And when might you actively encourage compromising a computer system’s security?

Service and partnership

This summer, 50 rising high school freshmen participated remotely in their first year of Step Up to STEM, while 38 rising sophomores came to NCSSM’s Durham campus for their second year in the program. 

Dr. Letitia Hubbard, an Instructor of Engineering and Mentorship at NCSSM, led the Step Up to STEM program and taught the Focused and Brilliant course.

“Step Up to STEM represents an intentional effort by NCSSM to not only give students from around the state access to the tremendous resources available here, but to also give them guidance on pursuing opportunities in STEM that they may have never heard of or considered before,” Hubbard said. “This is a beautiful example of how NCSSM fulfills its mission to challenge students and provide opportunity where opportunity doesn’t always exist.”

Since the beginning, Step Up to STEM and its students have been the fortunate beneficiaries of substantial corporate and foundation support. The involvement of private dollars has been a key part of the program’s continued success, providing crucial funding needed to run the program as envisioned. Just recently, the technology and communications giant, Cisco Systems, committed $150,000 over three years to the program beginning with summer 2021.

Hidden Keys students consider the complexities of cybersecurity.

Anthony Grieco, Vice President and Chief Information Security Officer at Cisco, spoke virtually with the students at the beginning of the program and commented on the program’s value after its conclusion.

“I was impressed by both the relevance and depth of my recent discussion with NCSSM’s Step Up to STEM students,” Grieco said. “The cybersecurity industry in which Cisco is heavily involved will always need innovative and creative problem solvers, and this program serves as a clear path to arm students with new skill sets. I came away inspired and look forward to watching the careers and contributions of the program’s participants.”

Lessons learned

For all the complicated scenarios Victoria encountered in the cybersecurity course, she realized that the most important action she could take was also the most personal: securing the digital envelope in which she and her family members operate. Though sophisticated antagonists regularly target multinational institutions, many of the most vulnerable access points into an individual’s digital life are in that person’s home and in the tablets, laptops, and mobile phones they carry with them. By taking steps to secure those endpoints, Victoria can better ensure that she and her loved ones are protected from unwanted digital intrusions.

“Something that was surprising that I picked up from the course was how I can set up a protection system within my own home,” she said. “Learning more about cybersecurity was an eye-opening experience to me because it showed me ways hackers are able to attack my device whether it is making fake WiFi guest accounts or using the phishing method. Now I can use my knowledge to help my family members, like my grandmother, keep their devices safe from being hacked.”

Back in the chemistry lab, having all had a whiff of the mystery sample, Mia and her classmates compared notes. Some, like Mia, smelled peppermint. Some smelled vinegar. There was no consensus on which it was.

It was a mixture of both, revealed NCSSM science instructor Nina Kornegay, who led the course. Prior to joining NCSSM, Kornegay was a forensic chemist for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for the state of North Carolina.

The experiment wasn’t the sensory equivalent of a trick question, Kornegay explained. Instead, it illustrated the challenges inherent in eyewitness accounts of an incident, challenges that forensics can help resolve through scientific inquiry. 

Mia was inspired by the field’s ability to help unravel mysteries by investigating minute physical details. “I really liked how we were able to learn the different processes that actual forensic scientists use,” she said. “It’s awesome to be able to track down someone from small pieces of evidence like hair and fingerprints. But we were also able to learn how sometimes forensic sciences can be unreliable.”

Over in the robotics and engineering lab, one of two things could have happened when Micah spoke into the mic of his fiber optic device: he would hear his voice through the speaker, or he wouldn’t.

He didn’t. But there’s much learning to be had when things don’t go exactly as planned, noted Dr. Hubbard as she watched the students work to resolve issues they were encountering. “I’ve learned the most,” she said, “when I’ve had to tear something apart to find out why it wasn’t working.”

Loose wires and bad connections have foiled many engineers, but Micah found what he thought was the problem. Resolved, he spoke once again into the mic.

It worked. His resulting enthusiasm was apparent. “Step Up to STEM rocks!” the speaker squawked as Micah continued to test its function. “Yee haw!”