STEM program engages high school students in research

The Young Researchers Program was founded in 2009 by two doctoral students in the earth sciences department to provide research skills for local high school students interested in STEM fields. Photo courtesy of Erin McParland.

The USC Young Researchers Program is evolving in its seventh year as a summer program for high school juniors and seniors, which is run by USC doctoral candidates and mentors to integrate local students into research conducted at the university.

The main purpose of the program is to have one-on-one mentoring sessions between the high school student and the graduate student in a professional laboratory setting.

The program was founded in 2009 by Carie Frantz and Laurie Chong, two former graduate students in the earth sciences department, with the help of professor Will Berelson.

“I knew I wanted to be a mentor for YRP when I first started at USC,” said Emily Burt, a doctoral student studying geological sciences. “I thought it was a tangible way to help increase diversity [in] academia and also for me, personally, to start gaining mentorship skills right away.”

The program provides free interactive experiences to students within a five-mile radius of USC, especially to those who are underrepresented in the community and in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, according to doctoral student Joyce Yager, the program’s recruitment coordinator. Through the Young Researchers Program, these students are able to develop research skills while being exposed to college and laboratory work.   

“I think that this program really gives students the confidence to work in a research lab and be on a college campus,” Burt said. “They’re gaining research skills but also getting some college preparedness about the different aspects of applying to college like financial aid, admissions and four-year institutions.”

The application opens during spring, and students are admitted to the program through a lengthy process that includes short-answer questions, personal statements and letters of recommendation. Afterwards, the program board reviews and selects the best applications.

“We are just looking for students who show a genuine interest in the STEM field and also for those who never had an opportunity like this,” said Erin McParland, a doctoral student studying marine biology and biological oceanography. “We try to bring in students who are very impressive applicants who just never had the chance to shine.”

Each high school student is paired with a graduate student and given six weeks to create a research poster based on their specialized topic, McParland said. The students are also expected to work 15 hours a week over the summer to complete their research.

“I was interested in volunteering and working with a student,” Yager said about her experience as a doctoral student. “Especially since as graduate students, one of the things that we think about is if we are going to become faculty members a few years from now and mentoring our own students. So mentoring high school students is a great way of starting to work on those skills.”

The doctoral student-volunteers study in a variety of specialized fields, such as marine biology and engineering. The types of sciences researched vary from year to year because they are based on the preferences of the student, Yager said. Many of the mentees are matched with a mentor who is studying and already doing research in a field that they are interested in. However, in Yager’s experience volunteering, the most common sciences that are explored are neuroscience, chemistry, computer science, geology and biology.

“A good number of the research projects tend to fall under testing different methods that graduate students might use,” Burt said. “The research project that my mentee did was testing the way that we collect water from soils to see if that affected its chemistry. Some other students learned to code games using Python or they learn how to create codes to manage information systems.”

At the end of the program, the students present their research posters to USC faculty, mentors and their family members at a poster symposium.

The mentors hope that YRP cultivates more underrepresented students to develop an interest in pursuing a career in STEM and to build confidence in applying to and attending a four-year college.