UCSC internships for high school students yield success in science contests

SIP group photo
Participants in the 2013 Science Internship Program at UCSC posed for a group photo after presenting their work at the end of the summer. (Photo by Mark Yamaguma)

A growing summer internship program for high school students at UC Santa Cruz has consistently produced successful entries in nationwide science competitions. The 2013 Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology is no exception: out of 51 semifinalists from California, 15 were participants in the UCSC Science Internship Program (SIP), and of the 15 regional finalists from California, three were UCSC SIP participants.

Regional winners will be selected in November and compete for the national awards in December. The Siemens Foundation awards prizes and scholarships to regional and national winners.

The 61 students who participated in the SIP program this year came from high schools throughout the region, from Santa Cruz to Oakland. The program even attracts students from out of state, including one this year who is a regional finalist in Indiana. The interns work with UCSC researchers and are given projects that are part of their mentor's broader research program. Most of the research is in the physical sciences, including physics, chemistry, engineering, and astrophysics. Of this year's students, 39 applied to the Siemens competition.

"The program has been growing steadily, and our students' rate of success in these competitions has also grown," said Puragra (Raja) GuhaThakurta, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC who founded and directs the SIP program. He noted that the program's participants had a much higher rate of success in the Siemens competition than the national average (about one in eight contestants nationally were semifinalists, compared to well over a third of UCSC contestants).

GuhaThakurta said he was particularly gratified by the number of female students who participate in the program, getting hands-on experience in the physical sciences, an area in which women are under-represented. "About 60 percent of our interns are girls, and among the mentors, who are important role models for the interns, about 45 percent are women," he said, noting that all of the program's regional finalists and 9 of the 15 semifinalists were female students.

The mentors are mostly graduate students and postdoctoral researchers working in faculty research labs. The Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, where SIP began, still has the most participants. Astronomy projects accounted for 13 of the program's 15 semifinalists and three of the four regional finalists in the Siemens competition. The astronomy projects were based on data from some of the world's most powerful telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck Telescopes in Hawaii.

"Astronomy is a data-rich science--we have a lot of data to process, which gives students the opportunity to learn computational techniques for analyzing astronomical data," GuhaThakurta said.

The program has extended its reach beyond astronomy, however, and now includes research programs in computer science, computer engineering, biomolecular engineering, biochemistry, physics, ocean science, and ecology and evolutionary biology.

"The astronomers have seen the success up close, so participation is high in our department. But people are reaching out to us now from other top-notch research programs on campus," GuhaThakurta said.

The program has also expanded the number of high schools that are involved. SIP has a formal partnership with two Bay Area schools, Harker School in San Jose and Castilleja School in Palo Alto. Science teachers at those schools help with SIP intern selection from their schools, which contribute the majority of SIP participants. The program is open to all schools, however, and has had students from public, private, and charter schools throughout the Bay Area and beyond.

The Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology recognizes talented high school students who are willing to challenge themselves through science research. Through this competition, students have an opportunity to achieve national recognition for science research projects that they complete in high school. It is administered by the College Board and funded by the Siemens Foundation.