Workshop helps high school students communicate science to the public

132 rising high school seniors from across the country fine-tuned their abilities to communicate science to lay audiences during a science-writing workshop on July 30 at MIT. Part of the MIT Online Science, Technology, and Engineering Community (MOSTEC) conference, the workshop featured a panel of ten experienced writers and highlighted the importance of communication skills in science and engineering careers.

MOSTEC students present information in science writing style at the annual conference.

MOSTEC students present on their peers’ science and engineering projects in layman’s terms during the workshop.

The workshop and conference were components of the MOSTEC program, a six-month experience that challenges high school seniors with rigorous, technical projects and gives them the opportunity to discuss science, engineering and college admissions in a supportive online community. Inspired by the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, the MOSTEC science writing course has been a part of the program since its conception in 2011, when MOSTEC Program Coordinator Louis Fouché began recruiting instructors from the graduate program itself.

One MOSTEC science writing instructor who participated in the workshop was Emily Ruppel, who studied English literature for her undergraduate degree and felt unsure of her career path before finding a home at MIT. As a graduate student, she learned how apply her nonfiction writing skills to science and technology stories. “The MIT graduate program has a focus on really making you a better writer,” said Ruppel. With a new passion for science writing, she jumped at the opportunity to teach the MOSTEC course upon finishing her graduate studies.

Ruppel sees the course as crucial to the success of the future scientists of MOSTEC, who will one day find themselves writing grant proposals for their own research funding. “Writing and communication are such integral parts of the process of science,” Ruppel said. “Scientists can explain their projects to a multitude of audiences, so the better prepared they are to talk to those audiences, the better prepared they are for science.”

Science writing instructors teach students how to simplify sentences for general audiences.

Instructors share tips on simplifying language in science writing intended for the general public.

Another reason science writing is so important, according to MOSTEC science writing instructor Erin Weeks, is that the public plays a significant role in scientific advancement. “So many discoveries are made with public funding, so scientists owe it to the public to tell them what they’ve been doing with that funding,” said Weeks.

During the on-campus workshop, instructors led activities to test students’ ability to write with clarity and brevity. During the first exercise, instructors presented complex sentences for students to simplify. In another exercise, students paired off and discussed their MOSTEC project work with partners, who presented what they learned to the group. Whenever students heard something an audience might not understand, they “buzzed” for the speaker to use more accessible language.

Through both exercises, instructors reinforced that communicating with general audiences requires writers to think carefully about word choice and narrative. “You have to be very entertaining,” Ruppel said. “You want your audience to enjoy it so much that they don’t realize they’re picking up complex concepts along the way.”

The panel of instructors fielded questions for the second part of the workshop. MOSTEC student Ashia Ajani, a Colorado native with a passion for poetry, asked about blending her own creative brand with the technical elements of science writing. Ruppel responded with an excerpt from the description of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing: “Science writers may, or may not, hold academic credentials in science or engineering. But they are always humanists, one foot in the sciences, the other in the arts, as apt to be seduced by a shapely sentence as by an elegant scientific idea.

MOSTEC students left with a better understanding of science writing and how to communicate their ideas and research. “I’m hoping that this course breaks down the notion that science isn’t for everybody,” said Fouché. “You want science to benefit everyone. I’m hoping as time moves forward that scientists more clearly see the importance of being able to engage in scientific discourse.”

—Words by Sydney Lester, photos by Meredith Lawrence

Lunch with SanDisk CEO celebrates OEOP alumni

Leaders from the SanDisk Corporation joined MIT students and staff on September 19 at the Boston Marriott Cambridge for a lunch that acknowledged undergraduates who have benefitted from SanDisk-supported high school programs and undergraduate scholarships.

“MIT is a special place for SanDisk,” said SanDisk CEO Sanjay Mehrotra, who praised the Institute’s research, international programs and focus on interdisciplinary education. “MIT is among the very best when it comes to the technology and engineering engagement that it provides to students.”

Part of the lunch celebrated SanDisk’s support of MIT’s STEM education outreach at the high school level. Over the past two years, SanDisk has sponsored dozens of students in MIT engineering enrichment programs for rising high school seniors from across the country. Those programs – Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES), Engineering Experience at MIT (E2@MIT) and MIT Online Science, Technology, and Engineering Community (MOSTEC) – primarily serve students from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds.

The lunch also highlighted SanDisk’s support of MIT at the undergraduate and graduate levels. As part of the SanDisk Scholars Program, the company has sponsored scholarships for undergraduate students in each grade level for the past three years. SanDisk also partners with the VI-A M.Eng. Thesis Program – a five-year program in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science that matches students with industry internships and awards them bachelor’s and master’s degrees – as well as the Leaders for Global Operations program – a dual degree program in engineering and management innovation run by the School of Engineering and the Sloan School of Management.

The SanDisk executive team members at the lunch – five of whom are MIT alumni – discussed other ways the company may look to support MIT’s preparation of engineering leaders in the future. SanDisk Senior Vice President Manish Bhatia ’93, SM ’99, MBA ’99 said the company is looking into sponsoring undergraduate research.

“One of the best things about MIT is that there’s no way for you to get an engineering degree here without doing research,” Bhatia said. “It’s a fundamental part of being an engineer in the real world, and it’s one of the things that separate MIT engineers.”

During the lunch, MIT students and leadership from SanDisk had an opportunity to learn about each other’s work. “Hearing about what each one of you is doing is just mind-boggling,” Mehrotra said. “We are so proud to be sponsoring the SanDisk Scholars as well as the MITES, E2@MIT and MOSTEC programs.”

Many SanDisk leaders spoke before the full group, covering topics ranging from advances in flash memory technology, to career opportunities at SanDisk, to the importance of networking.

“You are the future leaders,” said James Goldsberry, Senior Director of Engineering for SanDisk at the company’s new location in Marlborough, Massachusetts. “Carry the network you have here throughout your whole life, because these will be the future leaders of your sister companies. You’re going to lean on them as you proceed in your career.”

An outpouring of thanks concluded the event. “Programs like ours wouldn’t happen without sponsors and supporters like SanDisk,” said Shawna Young, executive director of the MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs. “SanDisk is making a tremendous impact on the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

Words by Nick Holden, photos by Pierce Harman

This story was also published on MIT News.

The thrill of the ride

When he was seven years old, Brandon Holloway first gazed up at Apollo’s Chariot — the tallest, fastest roller coaster at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va. “It was so huge you could see it from the highway,” he says. “When I finally got the courage to ride it, it was the middle of the night — pitch black — and I went by myself. The rest of my family was deathly afraid.”

Holloway strapped in, ascended the signature 170-foot chain lift hill, and took the plunge. “The drop went on forever. I was screaming all the way down,” he says. “I remember explicitly thinking afterward, ‘I want to design rides like this.’”

As a graduating senior in mechanical engineering, Holloway is on his way to a career in ride design. Although his track from rural Virginia to MIT featured a number of unexpected dips and turns, he held on and recently made the stop on Killian Court to pick up his diploma.

Brandon Holloway was inspired by a roller coaster and had his passions fueled by MITES.

Brandon Holloway was inspired by a roller coaster and had his passions fueled by MITES.

Rural roots

Holloway grew up in Smithfield, a town of 8,000 residents, about 70 miles southeast of Richmond. Graduates of Smithfield High School tend not to stray far from home. “A lot of the kids don’t leave the state for college — if they do go to college. There’s a cotton field across from my high school,” he says. “Honestly, MIT wasn’t even on my radar.”

Holloway had other plans. He exhausted the Advanced Placement and honors math and science courses at his high school and sought additional online resources to prepare for a future beyond Smithfield. During his junior year, his guidance counselor told him about MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) Program — a six-week residential, academic enrichment experience that aims to engage highly talented students from traditionally underserved or underrepresented populations. Holloway applied, was accepted, and travelled to Boston in June 2009 for his first visit to the MIT campus.

“It kicked my butt”

Arriving in Boston, Holloway experienced his first extended stay in a major city — and was reminded of what had brought him there. “Riding the subway for the first time was the coolest experience,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘How does this work? How is it going so fast? How does it not go off the track?’”

Through his classes in the MITES Program, Holloway experienced something else he hadn’t in Virginia: failure. “It kicked my butt,” he says. “In high school, I was getting As left and right; I didn’t even have to try. At MITES, you get that first grade back, and it’s a shock to your whole system.”

Holloway found support with his peers. Through long days and late-night study sessions, he and his classmates formed a family, he says. The experience made him more comfortable with the idea of studying at a world-class institution. “It got my brain into the ‘MIT gear,’” he says. Along with academic support, Holloway’s peers also gave him a new cultural perspective. “In Smithfield, you’re black or you’re white,” he says. “When you come to MITES, not only are you not black or white, you’re African American, or African, or Spanish, or Portuguese — or anything under the rainbow. Everybody has their culture, and everybody’s so proud of that culture.”

Coursework and connections

After MITES, Holloway returned home inspired to aim higher. He applied to MIT early action and matriculated in fall 2010. He thrived in courses with direct connections to his passion for ride design. “When you start taking the core classes like 2.001 (Mechanics and Materials) and 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing), that’s when you start making cool stuff and learning awesome skills — like working with SolidWorks and turning a drawing into a physical product,” he says.

Outside the classroom, Holloway connected with MIT alum Matt DuPlessie ’99 to land an internship at 5 Wits Productions, a company that designs adventure experiences and interactive exhibits for museums, theme parks, and theaters. He also leveraged the Infinite Connection to meet other alumni who work for theme parks and ride builders. With his connections, internship experience, and mechanical engineering degree, Holloway plans to enter the industry soon after graduation.

But Holloway has one debt to settle first. This summer, he returned to MITES as head teaching assistant. While his students grapple with the program’s academic rigor, he plans to help them keep everything in perspective and focus on their goals. “A lot of times people can get bogged down in the classwork and the grading,” he says. “Students need to remember that they’re working toward their passions.” Currently, Holloway is program assistant for national programs for the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs.

—Nick Holden

This story was also published on MIT News.

Senior Corning manager speaks to MITES students in career seminar

Dr. Gregory E. Williams, a 25-year-plus veteran of Corning Incorporated, hosted a career seminar on July 15th at MIT for 72 rising high school seniors as part of Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES). Dr. Williams, who graduated with a degree in physics from MIT in 1983, spoke about his work, the importance of different perspectives in the STEM field, and the value of lifelong friendships and passions the students would develop through MITES.

Dr. Williams talks to the MITES students about the importance of community and passion.

Dr. Williams talks to the MITES students about the importance of community and passion.

“This is the most wonderful experience you’ll ever have in your life: finding gifted, like-minded people,” Dr. Williams said. One of the main goals of the MITES program is to foster a community of motivated individuals who collaborate on projects that interest them in ways that encourage personal development. The students come to MITES from all across the country and from a variety of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.

“I believe that diversity of thought, mind, religion and gender is important,” said Dr. Williams. He explained that today’s technology is the result of multiple viewpoints coming together to explore ideas that might not otherwise be given a chance. Because of these ideas, innovation is occurring so rapidly that some of today’s developments won’t see widespread adoption for twenty or more years, Dr. Williams said.

Students respond to questions on modern technology and the future of STEM.

Students respond to questions on modern technology and the future of STEM.

One piece of technology that attracted Dr. Williams to Corning is still a cornerstone of the company’s business. “Early in my career, I wanted to do something to further mankind, so I went to Corning, where we built fiber optic cables that stretched from the U.S. to the U.K.,” he said. Because of their high conductivity and strength, fiber optic cables remain a better choice for transmitting information than traditional copper cables.

Dr. Williams encouraged MITES students to search for the things that inspire them just like his work at Corning does. “Many of you will become part of the research and development field, seeing things that have never been seen before,” Dr. Williams said. “I want you to think very carefully about your future. Think hard about why you’re doing the things that you’re doing.”

With the MITES students carefully weighing college and career options, Dr. Williams stressed the importance of getting to know people with similar interests and maintaining those relationships. “When you go back to school, you’re still going to feel like a fish out of water, but now you’ve made friends, maybe friends for life,” he said. “Never stop dreaming.”

Sydney Lester

STEM Program brings local middle school students to MIT for science and engineering enrichment

From July 7 through August 9, 86 students who attend public middle schools in Boston, Cambridge and Lawrence, Mass., participated in science and engineering enrichment at MIT through the five-week Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Summer Institute, a component of the STEM Program offered by the MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (OEOP).

Sixteen instructors, all of whom are undergraduates, taught the students in eight subject areas. Rising sixth graders studied biology and algebra, rising seventh graders studied chemistry and physics, rising eighth graders studied probability and statistics and engineering design, and rising ninth graders studied pre-calculus and robotics. The instructors worked closely with expert mentors to prepare their curricula, and academic advisors provided additional student and instructional support.

A primary goal of the program – which is offered free of charge due to generous support from individuals, foundations, corporations and MIT – is to empower local students with the skills and confidence needed for future success in technical careers.

Probability and Statistics Instructor Mia Bernardino, a civil engineering major at Seattle University, values the STEM Program’s focus on students from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds. “I really want to inspire minority students to work in the STEM field,” she says. “There are not many women in the civil engineering field, or engineering in general. I want to be an example for other young women, to show that they can be like me one day and teach others.”

Words by Sydney Lester and Nick Holden, photos by Meredith Lawrence

A different sense of pride

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Stephan Boyer, MITES ’08, is an MIT graduate student and member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (Photo: Meredith Lawrence).

In 2008, Stephan Boyer was a top student at his California high school. Interested in electrical engineering, Stephan traveled to MIT to enroll in Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) during the summer before his senior year. Through six weeks of new challenges and a college-level engineering curriculum at MITES, Stephan discovered there was much to learn from his peers.

“I had no idea what a top-caliber student, an MIT student, looked like,” said Boyer. MITES exposed him to other students who excelled at school and inspired him to pursue his interests in engineering and computer science. “The people I met were passionate and cared about their fields,” Stephan says. “They were independent thinkers.” 

During MITES, Stephan found himself and his peers working harder than they ever had before. “Everyone in the program is united by one thing,” Stephan says. “They have this fire that can’t be put out.” That fire shifted many of Stephan’s preconceived beliefs. “MITES put me in an environment where everyone was passionate,” he says. “They made me more open minded to things I’d never questioned before. I’d never had the opportunity to see things from a different perspective.”

Confident before MITES, Stephan met people who showed him that there was room to grow. “If your ego leads you to believe you’re already at the top, then you don’t have that drive,” he says. “There’s no motivation to push it further. MITES removed that sense of pride and replaced it with a different sense of pride. I come from a family of people who push me every day to be better than I thought I could be.”

As a graduate student at MIT and member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Stephan now uses his MITES foundation to move forward in his computer science career. While at MIT, he has taken on a number of challenging projects, which have led him to build a self-balancing unicycle, develop and implement a new computer programming language, and launch an app with 72,000 registered users.

Through his journey, Stephan has found creative motivation in people. “I draw inspiration from my closest friends, mostly at MIT,” he says. After MIT, Stephan hopes to start his own company in order to explore new ideas in a collaborative environment – a dream that started at MITES and continued through his education. “I want to push boundaries and do things that haven’t been done before,” he says. “I want to push the frontier of what’s possible.”

—Sydney Lester 

MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Professor Wesley Harris speaks to MITES students as part of lecture series

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Professor Harris engages MITES students with modern engineering questions.

Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Wesley Harris facilitated a lively discussion with the 72 Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) students on June 24. Topics included recent technological advances and the intersection of science and ethics.

“Build something, do something, study something,” Professor Harris said. “Get a passion in your heart. Get a passion in your belly.” Professor Harris spoke to the eager group of students about finding their niches in higher education and the greater world, as well as the “wonderful problems” awaiting them.

The following discussion focused on responsible progress, with an emphasis on keeping human interests in mind. In an era of rapid scientific growth, robots have replaced entire populations of workers. While technology can eliminate jobs, it has the ability to cultivate and expand the job market, Professor Harris said.

“Would you build a robot for Ford that eliminates jobs?” Professor Harris asked. The challenge of balancing progress and human interests became obvious to the students: If more jobs are eliminated than created by new technology, the purpose of scientific advancement is defeated.

Professor Harris started his career studying ecology at the University of Virginia and later researched rotorcraft technology, aerodynamics and fluid dynamics, sickle cell pathology, financial management methods, and defense systems acquisition. His lecture incorporated anecdotes from years of research and teaching.

Talking points

Throughout the discussion, Professor Harris posed the students questions from modern engineering challenges. One of these challenges involved stimulating human sensory responses with mere images and the obstacles associated with this task. “A rose is more than color. It has texture. It has fragrance,” he said. “How do I look at water visually and feel its wetness?”

“Our brains process things differently,” one student responded. “It is not your eyes that see, but your brain.”

Professor Harris also challenged the students to think of creative ways to ensure that space travelers return home with their original features and characteristics. “How does the human body respond to weightlessness? We want people coming back from Mars looking just like they did when they left, with one head, not two,” Professor Harris said.

Questions for the future

At the end of the presentation, students peppered Professor Harris with questions about glacial melting, genocide and efficient energy production without turbines, to name a few.

One student, Fabian Aristizabal of Hialeah, Fla., was concerned with the concept of life after human travel to Mars. “After Mars, what comes next? We’re stuck in our own neighborhood,” he said. Abigail Arnold from Seattle, Wash., asked, “Are humans fixed creatures, or do we move in conjunction with time and space to create our own perceptions of reality?”

Though the lecture focused primarily on engineering, Professor Harris left the MITES students with life advice. Asked to describe the legacy he wished to leave behind, Professor Harris said, “One: That I have been a good father. Two: To understand that I’ve been fair and positive, and that every day I move through this world with no intent to harm anyone. Three: That I’ve had a career in which there was modest success as a teacher and a researcher.”

—Sydney Lester