For the average teen, “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” doesn’t normally involve building a faster supercomputer, perfecting a lab on a chip or designing a device called an optical antenna that sniffs out bomb residue.
Thanks to an innovative UC Berkeley summer program, 15 high school students conducted hands-on research on these and other high-flying topics—all linked to groundbreaking nanoscale science and technology work taking place on campus. The Summer High-School Apprenticeship Research Program (SHARP), launched in 2007, turns teens into bona fide scientific investigators. Participants spend a month working alongside a graduate student mentor with the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Graduate Group, pursuing research assignments in fields ranging from electrical engineering and bioengineering to physics and materials science.
“At school, there’s only so much you can do,” says Laura Matloff, a 16-year-old student at Las Lomas High School in Walnut Creek and “SHARPie” participant. “I thought it would be cool to be on the cutting edge.” Her SHARP project was all that: Matloff did computer modeling of a proposed optical antenna that works with the tiny waves in the visible light spectrum. Among the device’s many potential applications would be identifying dangerous molecules and serving as a future airport screening tool. Matloff, who was mentored by 23-year-old EECS graduate student Matteo Staffaroni, said her summer experience provides “a different view of classroom science.”
That perspective is one of SHARP’s goals. While EECS professor Connie Chang-Hasnain doesn’t expect breakthrough discoveries from the program’s youthful participants during a four-week session, she says, “I hope the high school students get a sense of the excitement of research.” Along with that thrill, she hopes participants learn that scientific work is “not all glory.” Chang-Hasnain was inspired to start SHARP after her daughter attended a similar program at UC Santa Barbara.
This summer’s SHARPies were selected from among 92 high-achieving applicants entering their senior year of high school. Participants came from throughout the East Bay, South Bay and as far away as Sacramento and Fresno. Along with the firsthand exposure to university research, the students receive a $1,000 stipend for their efforts.
“It’s pretty good stuff,” says SHARPie Ben Fortson. A 16-year-old from Sacramento, Fortson tested a new method for loading liquid into microfluidic devices as an apprentice in Professor Luke Lee’s lab in Stanley Hall. “It’s a really powerful tool,” says Fortson, of the tiny “labs on a chip” that have vast potential to analyze blood and other biological samples on a nanoscale. “And it’s a fun way to spend the summer,” he adds.
SHARP benefits the graduate student mentors as well—giving them help with ongoing projects and providing training and leadership experience. “It’s really a win-win situation,” says Chang-Hasnain. The National Science Foundation helps fund the program.
Working with EECS doctoral student Jeff Chou, 16-year-old Jeremy Huang from San Jose’s Leland High School studied and compared algorithms for a MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) device capable of aligning laser beams for high-speed data communication within computer systems. Huang, who already has taken advanced high school classes in physics, chemistry and calculus, applied to the summer program on a friend’s recommendation. “I wanted a different kind of learning experience,” Huang says. “I want to be able to create and innovate and learn by doing.”
Chou, 23, says he initially wondered how well the young apprentices would be able to grasp and tackle their complex research projects. Those concerns have since vanished. “I think the high school students have exceeded our expectations,” Chou says.