Students’ summer research continues despite new difficulties, Harker research classes adapt to online environment

University+of+California%2C+Santa+Cruz%2C+was+one+of+the+few+universities+that+modified+their+Summer+Internship+Program%2C+a+summer+research+program+for+high+schoolers%2C+to+an+online+format.+As+most+opportunities+moved+online+due+to+the+COVID-19+pandemic%2C+students+found+new+research+opportunities%2C+either+through+virtual+labs+or+on+their+own+at+home.+

University of California, Santa Cruz, was one of the few universities that modified their Summer Internship Program, a summer research program for high schoolers, to an online format. As most opportunities moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students found new research opportunities, either through virtual labs or on their own at home.

by Sabrina Zhu, Assistant STEM Editor

Upper school students conducted science research during the summer despite new challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Though several popular research programs like the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science (COSMOS) and the Research Science Institute (RSI) were canceled due to their limited capacity to continue instruction online, others like the Science Internship Program (SIP) hosted by the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), and internships with university and company laboratories moved to virtual settings.

SIP, which usually takes place on the UCSC campus, was directed to operate entirely remotely as a result of concerns over COVID-19. Many projects could easily be completed online, but those that could not were adapted or replaced. 

“The way our internship worked is that we met with our actual mentor twice a week virtually,” said Alex Lan (10), who attended SIP this summer. “Occasionally she would drop into our team meetings. Otherwise, we had a team meeting everyday for one to two hours just to do work.” 

Over a course of eight weeks, Alex helped to develop a 360-degree, virtual reality game designed to assist adults with developmental disabilities. He faced some challenges with the new setting, especially when collaborating with his team members and mentors.

“Obviously, it’s a bit harder to bond than it is in person. But over eight weeks, it generally got better and better. After the fourth week, we were working together pretty well and splitting the work pretty equally,” Alex said.

I think it has been a disappointing time, but I’m really impressed at how Harker students tried to find alternatives when they’re internships were cancelled or changed in ways that enabled work only in a virtual space. I’m very impressed with how resilient they are and how they still tried to get the most that they could.”

— science department chair Anita Chetty

Upper school science research teacher Chris Spenner cited similar possible obstacles. 

“Science is a human endeavor, and people work better when they can work together on these projects, in-person,” Spenner said.

Sidra Xu (11), who usually works at a lab to do scientific research in the summers, transferred online. Continuing into her third year of an internship with a Stanford lab, she implemented machine learning to classify progenitor heart cells, and she was able to stay in contact with her team members through text and email.

“Since most of [my research] is already on my computer, it didn’t really feel different,” Sidra said. “But some of my favorite parts in the past few years were lunch breaks, where you can meet with others at the cafeteria, and that wasn’t really possible.”

Anita Chetty, the upper school science department chair, understands that many students missed out on opportunities often enjoyed by students doing summer research due to the virtual space, citing examples like lab experience, talks and conferences.

“[Conducting research at a lab] is a gift, and not only being in that lab with that scientist, but being with the graduate students and all the other people in the lab who give the student exposure and the daily experiences of being in that research lab,” Chetty said. 

Students without access to university programs or laboratories still found opportunities to conduct research at home. Olivia Xu (9) worked with a partner to use reinforcement learning to help with autonomous driving.

“For a few weeks over the summer, I would go to her house in the mornings, and we would work on the project,” Olivia said. “I didn’t really have that many concerns about COVID-19 because we [were] not meeting with a lot of people … and I trust my partner.”

Chetty was impressed with how quickly Harker students adapted to new changes and obstacles.

“I think it has been a disappointing time, but I’m really impressed at how Harker students tried to find alternatives when they’re internships were cancelled or changed in ways that enabled work only in a virtual space. I’m very impressed with how resilient they are and how they still tried to get the most that they could,” Chetty said.

As for the research classes offered at Harker, Spenner also noted that he will have to make creative accommodations to the research classes he offers throughout the school year at Harker in order to adapt to the online environment. 

“We’re going to start brainstorming ideas soon, and it’s just going to start with looking around at the resources they have and thinking about what they can do with them,” Spenner said. “In some cases, we might be able to send some things home with them or order things to send that they can make use of.”

For students who are not enrolled in his research classes but still want to conduct research this year, Spenner recommends that they start with what is available to them, like public data. He also suggests honing in on a topic early, exploring the prevalent issues in our world.

“There’s a lot going on in the world right now that should be inspiring people to take some kind of action, with the wildfires and the pandemic, that have scientific elements to them and that are worthy of investigation,” Spenner said.