Stanford internship program aims to close the gap in science education
The RISE program offers economically disadvantaged and minority students in local high schools the opportunity to experience real-world science research. All of its alumni have attended college.
The United States has a science education problem.
In 2010 world education rankings, American students placed 17th in science and 25th in math – a below-average performance due at least partially to an unusually large performance gap between the highest- and lowest-scoring students.
In many cases, minority and lower-income students who are particularly unprepared for and underrepresented in the sciences don't even see a science or engineering degree as an option.
Black and Hispanic students, for instance, despite accounting for over a quarter of the U.S. population, receive only 16 percent of the nation's undergraduate science and engineering degrees.
Stanford is trying to change that.
Since 2006, the university has been taking aim at this problem in its own backyard with the RISE (Raising Interest in Science and Engineering) summer internship program.
The initiative provides promising high school-age science students from nontraditional science backgrounds with seven-week stipend-funded positions in Stanford science and engineering labs.
"These are kids who may not have scientists or engineers in their networks," said Kaye Storm, director of Stanford's Office of Science Outreach, which runs RISE. "They know they like science or engineering, but they don't really know what that might mean in terms of an internship or career."
By exposing the students to an academic laboratory environment and introducing them to potential scientific contacts, RISE aims to bridge that gap between student talent and access to a college degree in the sciences.
Over the program's six years of operation, all 89 of its alumni have gone on, or are about to go, to college – not a few of them to Stanford. Three-fourths of those are the first in their families to do so.
RISE students, mainly from nearby San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, are academic high performers whose interest in science or engineering has caught their teachers' eyes.
Graduates of the RISE program gathered for a picture after their poster event and celebration.
The Stanford Office of Science Outreach awards 25 of these teacher-nominated students with summer stipends, funded partially by local corporate donors and family foundations, and matches them with Stanford labs that work within their areas of interest.
The subjects range from biology to electrical engineering, but each participating lab offers mentorship from graduate students and an "eye-opening experience," as RISE alumna Alison Logia put it, in the form of an entirely new approach to science.
"In school, I'd end up in science classes with predesigned labs," said Logia. "But when I came to Stanford it was different. When you get your results, you can't look them up in a book to see if they're correct, because no one's ever done this experiment before."
Logia, a graduate of Sequoia High School in Redwood City, worked for two summers in the lab of chemical engineering Professor Gerald Fuller. Although she knew she was interested in math and science in high school, her experiences in the Fuller Lab taught her "how to work in a lab, how to talk to a professor," and solidified her desire to go into engineering.
"I thought my professor was going to be a bald man in a sweater who would be difficult to talk to," she said. "He actually ended up being really cool."
Her work in the lab on fluid-fluid interfaces, continued after the summer, netted her a spot at last year's Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. She'll be attending Stanford in the fall.
In the lab, out in the field
The RISE internship is, in essence, a full-time job. Students either help with ongoing lab research or are assigned their own, self-contained research projects within the lab's focus.
RISE alumnus Juan Jiménez, a Stanford sophomore and graduate of Eastside College Preparatory in East Palo Alto, analyzed the aerodynamics of Formula One tires in the lab of mechanical engineering Assistant Professor Gianluca Iaccarino.
"I really got to see one very specific side of mechanical engineering," Jiménez said. "But at the same time my mentor explained how broad mechanical engineering was as a field."
Exposure to this breadth is another of RISE's goals.
The program's only deviations from the full graduate student experience are its Wednesday field trips to the university's various scientific offerings. Visits range from Hopkins Marine Station to the Stanford Blood Center, and are meant to expose students to the breadth of topics encompassed under the terms "science" and "engineering."
The program culminates in a poster presentation session. In a formal ceremony, the students present the results of their research to their friends and colleagues. But, from the perspective of the Office of Science Outreach, the real end result of the program is college enrollment.
Not only have all RISE alumni been accepted to college, 77 percent of them major in science or engineering. Twelve of the 89 alumni attended Stanford – the single most popular college choice for RISE students.
RISE's role is as much social as it is academic. In most cases, the students already have the talent and smarts, but simply wouldn't have the connections, support or encouragement to pursue a science degree otherwise.
"If you've got a Stanford faculty member writing you a strong recommendation for the scientific research you performed, that's going to set you apart," Storm said.
Kaye Storm, Office of Science Outreach: email@example.com
Max McClure, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-6737, firstname.lastname@example.org