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Educating the next generation: High school interns expand their science frontiers

In a summer internship program, high school students worked with Stanford Earth faculty and graduate student mentors on active research projects.

Miles Traer
August 14, 2015
Interns looking at fossils
High school interns explore Earth's ancient past preserved in the fossil record with Stanford Earth Director of Outreach Education, Jennifer Saltzman (far right).

In science circles, there is a long-running joke that ends, “assume a spherical cow.” The joke is about how physicists oversimplify the real world to solve complex problems: Surfaces become frictionless, boxes have no mass, and cows transform into featureless beach balls. This is the way most beginners first learn the sciences. But a group of local high school students participating in the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences summer internship program saw their understanding of science and research expand well beyond the spherical cow.

The spherical cow is the most adorable of the oversimplified farm animals (by Ingrid Kallick).

Each of the 32 high school students in the program joined a lab at Stanford Earth to participate in an ongoing research project. Working closely with faculty, laboratory managers, and graduate students, they conducted research both in the lab and on computers across a wide variety of topics, including paleoclimate studies, agriculture, and microbiology. “Educating the next generation to understand how the Earth works is critical to society’s future ability to manage the planet’s environmental resources,” said Director of Outreach Education Jennifer Saltzman. “We see high school students as future leaders in this area just like our undergraduate and graduate students.”

“I’ve always loved science,” said Nick Sum, a rising junior from Saratoga who worked with graduate student Yi Zhao in Associate Professor David Lobell’s lab to analyze maize yields in China. “I participated in this program because I wanted to see what real research was like, not just the simplified stuff we learn in our classes.” The research was centered on a computational analysis of satellite images. Lobell, an expert in food systems, teaches Climate and Agriculture and Feeding Nine Billion in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

“[The internship program] really opened my eyes to the scope of real science research,” added Jeffrey Kishiyana, a soon-to-be senior from San Mateo who worked with lab manager Jeremy Hu-Chin Wei in Assistant Professor Paula Welander’s lab to investigate how microorganisms adapt to changes in their environmental chemistry.

Both Sum and Kishiyana came to the program based on a fundamental interest in science and a strong desire to keep exploring all of the scientific avenues, from biology to chemistry to physics. Working with their mentors, they had to quickly take the scientific method learned in high school and put it into practice.

“It was a little overwhelming at first,” said Sum. “I had to learn new [software] programs and how to analyze the data. And this is real data. That was one of the coolest things. When things didn’t work as we had expected, we had to figure out why.”

Kishiyana spent days looking through a microscope at groups of organisms whose growth and reproductive patterns changed based on small alterations to their surrounding environment. “We just changed one small thing at a time and recorded what happened. Sometimes things would change a lot, sometimes not that much. But it was all teaching us about how these organisms behave and gave us an idea of how they might have behaved in the past,” Kishiyana said.

As the students now approach the end of the internship, they have time to reflect back on their summer and see how much they have learned. Both Sum and Kishiyana said that they want to keep pursuing science and that the experience they gained this summer has helped them better understand what goes into real-life scientific research.

Said Kishiyana, “I got a chance to see how microorganisms behaved like humans. That was weird and surprising. Science is so cool because you start to see connections between things that you wouldn’t have seen before.”

From small changes in chemistry to computer analysis of satellite images, to cell growth seen under a microscope, the next generation of scientists is already thinking of the world as a complex system. With much yet to learn, these young scientists won’t have to assume a spherical cow anymore.