High school interns inspire new research paths at Stanford

When a group from the Electrical Engineering Department agreed to mentor high school interns, they didn’t anticipate it would stimulate entirely new research. That experience led the group to establish an internship focused on humanities in STEM.

In 2018, three high school interns forever altered the way Stanford University Professor Tsachy Weissman would think about his research. The high schoolers, under his group’s mentorship, produced an unusual study that showed how text messaging humans can describe images more effectively than current image compression algorithms. Beyond the success of the research itself, the high schoolers initiated an entirely new research path and motivated Weissman, a professor of electrical engineering, to advocate for research that brings a more human-centric perspective to technical sciences.

Some of the high school students and mentors who participated in the STEM to SHTEM internship program in 2019. The program focuses on putting the humanities in STEM. (Image credit: Denise Murphy)

As part of this advocacy, Weissman’s group launched the STEM to SHTEM summer high school internship in 2019 – “H” for humanities and the human element included in science, technology, engineering and math. During the inaugural summer, Weissman, his graduate students and colleagues from several other labs mentored 40 high school interns. Together, they studied various SHTEM problems, including how humans make decisions under time pressure, how scent influences virtual reality experiences, and how people communicate nonverbally when carrying objects as a team – something robots could learn to do better. They also continued the human-based compression work of the original interns.

“We want the interns to understand that you can be very much into the humanities while still enjoying and being relevant for STEM, and vice versa,” said Weissman, who is also director of the Stanford Compression Forum. “And it is valuable for us too because engineering projects benefit when the human element is explicitly incorporated to guide the development of algorithms and their performance evaluation.”

Humanities and high schoolers

The team behind this internship is enthusiastic about how the high school students have helped them consider the human perspective and human experience more deliberately in their research.

“As an engineer, I don’t encounter the human element in research enough, and I think keeping the human perspective in mind can not only continue to motivate engineering research but also spur new questions – and hopefully new solutions – to improve quality of life,” said Cindy Nguyen, a graduate student who led the development and organization of STEM to SHTEM.

The STEM to SHTEM team has found that high school students can improve their mentors’ ability to move between STEM and non-STEM worlds because they still actively study both sets of disciplines and are less sensitive to the boundaries between departments or schools.

“High school students, a lot of times, come in with fresh, unbiased minds – unlike us grad students – which can lead to some very original research directions,” said Kedar Tatwawadi, a graduate student in Weissman’s lab who worked with the original interns and with STEM to SHTEM. “We explicitly state that we want a component of humanities present in the projects because we benefit the most from encouraging students to explore topics that aren’t limited to STEM.”

All of the projects from summer 2019 were included in the Journal for High Schoolers, which was produced by last year’s interns and mentors. Several projects have resulted in papers submitted to scholarly journals, with one being presented at the Human-Robot Interaction Conference in spring. The work also lives on in the new collaborations between Stanford research groups who may have remained unacquainted if not for STEM to SHTEM.

“Simply injecting these kids into campus for that summer had ramifications way beyond the results they delivered,” said Weissman. “Their influence is still reverberating in very positive ways for all of us.”

Last year’s mentors and collaborators included producer and director Devon Baur, sketch artist Frank Hom, and Stanford professors Srabanti Chowdhury, Subhasish Mitra, Dorsa Sadigh, Debbie Senesky and Gordon Wetzstein, and members of their labs.

Looking forward to summer

Last year, the research on smell in virtual reality led to a one-week technology and theater program at the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre. The collaboration was so successful that STEM to SHTEM plans to work with the theater again this year. Incoming interns will also likely continue an existing collaboration with Hom to develop better compression algorithms for images of human faces. James Zou, assistant professor of biomedical data science, hopes to be a first-time STEM to SHTEM mentor and has proposed an all-new project: a graphic-novel-style primer for his introduction to data science course.

Weissman, Nguyen and Tatwawadi are currently figuring out what workshops and presentations they and their colleagues can give to the interns this summer. Their goal is to offer sessions that are educational, fun and encouraging.

“During the process of designing what the program would look like, I thought about my experiences as a high school intern and as a first-generation, low-income undergraduate,” said Nguyen. “Being able to give other students the opportunity that I had is such a privilege.”

With the program open for applications, the team hopes to draw broad interest from students – including those who lack confidence in their STEM skills, whose talents lie outside STEM or who aren’t yet sure about their future academic plans after high school. The program also offers some financial support to students who would otherwise be unable to participate.

“We aim to give every student a taste of the college adventure,” said Tatwawadi. “It could inspire them to take that adventure on and, perhaps, they will even go for graduate studies.”

Weissman is also a member of Stanford Bio-X and the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute.

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Media Contacts

Taylor Kubota, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-7707, [email protected]