With Help from Calit2, High School Students Finish Their COSMOS Experience on a High Note

8.9.05 -- With funding from Toyota USA Foundation, QUALCOMM, Calit2 and others, UCSD hosted a month-long summer session for California high school students interested in science and technology.

Gayle Wilson
Former California first lady Gayle Wilson gets a lesson in kinetic sculpture

Parents and family converged on the La Jolla campus over the weekend to pick up their kids and move them out of their dorm rooms, but only after hearing about the college-level research conducted by the 83 students participating in the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science (COSMOS) program.

In 2005 UCSD became the fourth UC campus after Irvine, Davis and Santa Cruz to host the COSMOS program.

"It is just so exciting to see the students so engaged and excited about science," says Gayle Wilson, chair of the COSMOS Advisory Board, who toured the UCSD projects this week and talked with the students as they put finishing touches to their research projects. Wilson was the principal advocate of a 1998 law that led to the creation of COSMOS and during her husband Pete Wilson's second term as Governor of California.

Cluster 3 on Ship
COSMOS students from Cluster 3 spend time on board Scripps' research vessels

"I realized that high school is when you really need to grab those students who show an interest and have some potential," recalls the former high-school chemistry teacher. "We need to give them a little extra support and encouragement, and that's what COSMOS does, in hopes that they will continue on in science and math careers."

The intensive four-week session was designed to give talented high school students a taste of college life and university-level academics. There were more than twice as many applications as available slots in UCSD's inaugural COSMOS session. Three students won Intel Promising Young Scientist Awards to cover the cost of participation, and fully one-third of the admitted students were awarded full scholarships.

The Jacobs School of Engineering organized the inaugural program. "For us, it's very important that we establish as early as possible a pipeline for the very best students to come into engineering and science and technology," says Dean Frieder Seible. "We want to get them excited and motivated to join us here at the Jacobs School."

Organizers were especially gratified that more than half of the students participating in the program at UCSD were young women.

Susan Kelly
COSMOS program manager Susan Kelly (second from left) and retired UC Regent Velma Montoya (far left) visit with students who helped comprise a female student majority in the inaugural COSMOS class at UCSD

"The percentage of women who graduate college with a science degree is far lower than it should be, partly because they didn't have female mentors or large numbers of older female students to learn from," says Susan Kelly, program manager of COSMOS at UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering. "At UCSD, the girls enrolled in COSMOS ranged from entering ninth graders to seniors, and they had regular contact with role models among the teaching assistants, residential advisors and faculty who could give them the insight and support they need to go on to careers in science and engineering."

The COSMOS program was co-directed by three UCSD faculty members: Sixth College provost Gabriele Wienhausen; Electrical and Computer Engineering professor emeritus Barney Rickett; and Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) professor Richard Herz. "One of our major goals is to reach out to students who have an interest in science and engineering, and inspire them to stay in it," says Herz. "Sometimes in high school there may be some pressure against being a 'nerd' or a 'geek' or really liking science and engineering; we are trying to get them to stay with it."

Michelle Rodriguez says she will definitely stay in the sciences. "I always loved math and science, and it was always my forte in school," says the Norwalk High School senior. "This is my second year in COSMOS, because I participated in the program last year at UC Irvine." Chemistry and bioengineering are Rodriguez's two particular areas of interest, and UCSD is among her top picks for college.

This year's students were split into five 'clusters' to focus their learning and research experiences in different disciplines. They had labs or classes six hours a day, including field trips twice a week.

Charles Tu
Jacobs School associate dean Charles Tu (left) asks students about their poster

Cluster 1, led by computer science professors Joe Pasquale, Larry Carter, and Christine Alvarado, dealt with the Science of Computing , and teams engaged in a wide variety of final projects. "One group developed a chess program, and another did a text-based fantasy game," says Lara Geronime, a Teacher Fellow and math educator assigned to supervise the cluster and work closely with the students throughout the program. "Some became interested in graphics and how computer-generated fractals mimic nature."

Professor Pasquale was impressed with the team that designed the chess program. "I thought initially this was going to be very hard for them given their programming experience and background," he says. "But they did something that is A-plus material."  Other projects included handwriting analysis and a predator/prey jungle simulator.

The MAE Design Studio became a second home to students enrolled in Cluster 2, Kinetic Sculpture and Clocks. The center's director, Nate Delson, and MAE professor Raymond de Callafon gave students a crash course in controls and computer-aided drawing, before turning them loose to create kinetic sculptures as their final projects that looked like Rube Goldbergesque contraptions. "Students get to experience both the interaction of the mechanical system, which is the kinetic sculpture, with an electronic interface, which is the control box they program and interface with the sculpture," explains de Callafon.

Eli Shawillems (left) and Sarah Vehian put finishing touches to their presentation on the impact of global warming on populations of green sea turtles

Students enrolled in Cluster 3 - Living Oceans and Climate Change - spent much of their time at UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Many of them got the chance to do snorkeling and kayaking for the first time. Newport Beach high school junior Sarah Vehian and Fresno senior Eli Shawillems did their project on the green sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. "We are looking at the potential effects of global warming and La Nina on these turtles," says Vehian, who says she first got interested in global warming during a high-school AP environment science class. Adds Shawillems: "We are also looking at the impact of human interference on their nesting beaches, and how the food chain and their habitat are affected."

Teacher Patrick Dietz with one of the teams that studied earthquakes and structural engineering

Cluster 4 introduced students to Earthquakes in Action, including the implications of seismic activity for the engineering of structures. "They know a lot  about earthquakes at this point, and they are also learning a lot about structural engineering," says Patrick Dietz, a Teacher Fellow who teaches math and physics at Patrick Henry High School in Escondido, CA. "I don't think they'll look at a building or a bridge the same way ever again!" Students such as Palisades High School senior Kevin McCully got the chance to experiment with building different types of structures and foundations. "I had never even soldered before," admits McCully as he takes a soldering iron to a miniature bridge column made out of metal wire mesh. "I now definitely have more of an interest in physics and earthquakes."

If they didn't know about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or DNA sequencing before this summer, students do now, after working on the Molecular Biology Revolution in Cluster 5. Their field trips included a visit to the UCSD Field Station where Biology professor Robert Schmidt took them on a tour of the greenhouses and fields where researchers are growing different varieties of genetically engineered corn.

DNA sequencing and analysis of gene modification have now become second nature to Cluster 5 students such as Poway High School senior Tim Scheffelin.  "This work is more advanced and we do more complicated things and have more money to work with that we do in AP classes in high school," says Scheffelin as he points to a container with blue gel holding genetic samples from different fruits and vegetables. "Right now we're testing to see if any of the genes are genetically modified. After 30 minutes, we can shine an ultraviolet light on it to see the different bands of chromosomal DNA."

Research Expo
COSMOS Student Research Expo took place in the new Computer Science and Engineering building's auditorium at UCSD

One measure of the success of the program comes from the parents of students enrolled in the program. Roya Akhavain was assigned to the computing cluster, and was part of the team that designed a chess software program. "She really liked graphics, but over the course of the summer she became very interested in artificial intelligence as well," says her father Mohammad. Roya's mom Zohreh says she is especially impressed with the balance of classroom and extracurricular activities: "This is one of the best programs I've ever seen, and I'm one of those people who encourage their kids to take something educational and fun, and this program had the two sides."

Professor Pasquale worked closely with Roya, who is entering her senior year. "She now has a better feel for what a research university is like and she got to meet world-class researchers," says Pasquale, who volunteered to provide guidance on her college applications. "We want to help these students do well when they apply for university. So I think for the student who is bright and who takes advantage of the opportunity, they will do very well because of this program."

COSMOS Cluster 3
Students from Cluster 3 learn about coastal bluff erosion below Torrey Pines State Park

Funding for the extension of the COSMOS program to UCSD came from a variety of sources, including a $400,000 grant from the Toyota USA Foundation, and $200,000 from QUALCOMM. Additional funding this year was provided by UCSD division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, the Legler Benbough Foundation, SAIC, and the John Moores Foundation.

As one of COSMOS's strongest advocates and fund-raisers, former California first lady Gayle Wilson says it is in the self-interest of companies in California to support the program. "Our state is heavy in technology and biotech and other industries, and they need employees who are well versed, with solid math and science backgrounds," says Wilson. "This has not been a hard sell for the businesses which see that these are going to be their future employees."

Next summer, the UCSD program will enroll 120 students, up from 84 this year, and will reach steady-state enrollment of 150 students in 2007. "It has been a gratifying process to work with these great young minds that are still so shapeable," explains the Jacobs School's Seible. "I see a very bright future for COSMOS at UCSD, and I'm sure we will continue this for many years to come."

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