This past summer, 30 high school students from the Los Angeles metropolitan area took part in the Summer Research Program at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.

By Matthew Chin

This program offered a rare opportunity for high school students to gain hands-on engineering-research experience. For those who are already interested in engineering, it gave them a chance to explore the field in more depth. And for those who have not had much exposure to engineering, the program opened up a whole new world to them.

“Through my visits to schools throughout California, it’s very apparent that many of today’s young students know very little about engineering, and very few realize how dependent society is on engineering innovation,” said Jeanine Moreno, the UCLA Engineering outreach coordinator who oversees the program. “Because of this, many overlook engineering as an exciting, creative and lucrative career option. Programs like ours are helping increase engineering awareness and also help shape and guide the engineers of tomorrow.”

In particular, the program sought girls and minorities who are under-represented in engineering fields.

Faculty members from all seven UCLA Engineering departments participated in the program by hosting students in their labs. The Center for Embedded Network Sensing and the Center for Research in Engineering, Media and Performance also hosted students.

Dominique LaFrance signed up for the program because she already had an interest in aerospace engineering.

“The first day I walked into the lab, I was stunned,” said LaFrance, who is entering her senior year at St. Bernard High School, in Playa Del Rey. “There were tools and big machines and lasers and so many more things! I knew once I walked in that this was not going to be a long eight weeks.”

The students also participated in weekly workshops, which included presentations on various engineering career paths and the process of writing scientific papers. The eight-week program culminated in a poster presentation in which the students displayed their work from the summer in much the same way researchers display their research results at scientific conferences.

“The purpose of this program is to expose young students to the research process and gain a true appreciation for what engineers do,” said Dean Vijay K. Dhir. “Through these efforts, we hope to encourage talented students to consider engineering as a career path.”

Ahuva Weltman was in bioengineering professor Warren Grundfest’s lab. There, she assisted researchers who were working on a device that could allow amputees to sense pressure in injured areas. Her program included a visit to a prosthetics lab, an experience she described as very powerful.

“I met and spoke with some of the patients who benefit from advancements in this field,” said Weltman, who will be entering her senior year at Yeshiva of Los Angeles Girls High School. “Seeing firsthand how technology impacts the lives of people in our society was really meaningful to me.”

Annemarie Mak, who was in the lab of Harold Monbouquette, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, said that before the program, she didn’t quite understand what engineers did.

“Now, I still do not know all the things that they can do — their capabilities are endless,” said Mak, who is a senior at Ramona Convent Secondary School in Alhambra. “The program has done much for my thought process — how to think analytically, remember the different methods applied and correctly write down all the information into my lab book.”

It’s these kinds of experiences in the program that can significantly influence a student’s chosen major and career goals.

Andrea Kasko, a professor of bioengineering who hosted a student, noted that her own interest in engineering started when she began to do research in college.

“By exposing students to engineering careers at this point, and give them an opportunity to really experience research in a way they would not otherwise see for several more years, we can recruit talented high school students to study engineering in college,” she said.

This is the second year of the Summer Research Program. Several participants from 2006 are now enrolling as freshmen in engineering programs throughout the country, including at UCLA.

Joey Degges, a participant in the Research Program in 2006, was at the Center for Embedded Network Sensing. He’ll be at UCLA Engineering this fall. Degges said that some of the longest days in the lab were actually the most rewarding.

“It was those days when I really felt like I accomplished something. I knew that the next day, 130 miles away, my work was being deployed and actually used,” Degges said. “After experiencing that feeling of accomplishment, it is easy to see why someone would want to be an engineer, because they get to use their minds to create. It may take a while, but when you are finished you know that your work is good and that you have accomplished something.”

The Summer Research Program is funded by the Nicholas Foundation.

Main Image: 2007 Summer Research Program students. Photo by Don Liebig.