College program gives young scientists lab time

Incoming Healdsburg High School senior Jorge Solorio has always been interested in how computers and computer games work.

“Ever since I saw my first computer,” he said, “I wondered, how do you write this stuff, how do you make all these games?”

But it wasn’t until this summer that the 17-year-old got a chance to answer some of those questions. The opportunity came after an adviser saw how well Solorio did in a junior year computer science class and suggested he apply for a summer science internship at Sonoma State University.

Solorio was accepted and spent the past couple of months working in a cluttered lab alongside numerous college students under the guidance of Farid Farahmand, an engineering professor. His job? To “hack” into a toy fire truck and build a phone application that controls its lights, sirens and wheels remotely.

“It was really great,” he said of the experience, adding that he especially enjoyed working alongside the college research students. “I felt like one of them.”

Solorio was one of 15 students accepted to the increasingly competitive Summer High School Internship Program, or SHIP, funded by the Sonoma County Office of Education and Sonoma State University. About 80 students applied.

The two entities created the program in 2008 with the goal of engaging and motivating the county’s most talented young scientists, said Lynn Stauffer, dean of SSU’s School of Science and Technology. Students are paired with faculty mentors who are conducting research in science, technology, engineering or math, disciplines commonly referred to by the acronym STEM. The students commit to at least four weeks of work on a research project and in turn receive a $1,000 stipend.

Until this year, the program was open to just 10 students, despite increasingly large and competitive applicant pools. In 2008, just 19 students applied, a number that leaped to 80 by 2012.

“I think the word got out,” said Suzanne Rivoire, assistant computer science professor, who has headed the program for the past three years. “We have (high school) science teachers who are extremely supportive and the students see this as something useful for getting into and getting prepared for college.”

To meet the demand, the Office of Education and the university decided this year to expand the program to 15 students. Funding for the expansion comes from the state and a donation from Chuck and Cathy Williamson, whose son participated several years ago.

Expanding SHIP allows for a broader selection of students. That includes some from more disadvantaged backgrounds who might not have as much scientific training, Rivoire said. “It really changed the program for the better,” she said. “We still get excellent, prepared students, and we also get other excellent students without the preparation who are still in a position to benefit from this.”

Solorio, whose parents did not attend college, said he had to learn almost everything from scratch when he started his internship this summer. But he didn’t feel overwhelmed: “I had a lot of help from the professor, the students working here,” he said.

Farahmand has invited Solorio to return to SSU and use the lab during the school year. Solorio said he’ll take the professor up on his offer: He already has plans to hack his younger brother’s toy helicopter and make it fly.

Ongoing relationships between mentors and students are common: An internal survey showed that 79 percent of program alumni between 2008 and 2012 had some contact with their mentor after the internship ended, Rivoire said. The survey also found that all participants who graduated from high school went on to college, and that 93 percent of them pursued majors in one of the STEM disciplines.

Solorio wants to major in computer science or engineering and now lists SSU among his top choices. Many of Rivoire’s students have gone on to study computer science or a related field in college. Her last intern, Shin Mei Chan, will be studying biomedical engineering at Stanford this fall.

Chan, a Casa Grande graduate, said SHIP sparked her interest in research and engineering. “Before the SHIP program I had never experienced a real research environment, had never been put in an environment where new ideas were being created,” she said.

Rivoire’s current intern, Alex Katz, taught himself many aspects of computer programming but didn’t have a chance to use his knowledge in a research setting until this summer.

Since May, the 17-year-old senior at Orchard View charter school has been working about 40 hours a week with a team of four math and computer science majors to study the efficiency of a supercomputer in Tennessee.

Asked if he was intimidated to join the older students, he replied, “They were very welcoming, even though they knew a lot more about the programming and math.”

One of the college students, senior computer science major Kelsey Rangel, countered, “He intimidates us, he’s so damn smart.”

Katz was so engaged in the internship that he let it stretch well beyond the four-week minimum.

“My mom said I have to stop soon,” he acknowledged. “I have college applications to work on.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen?

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