At the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, scientists and educators have found new ways to balance their work with safety needs as the laboratory’s Educational Programs and Outreach Department successfully transitioned all of its summer programming to a virtual learning environment.
By connecting scientific and research divisions across the laboratory, Argonne was able to create multiple virtual programs, helping young people stay connected and engage with the laboratory’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education opportunities.
“Providing STEM opportunities and a constant presence with our next generation of STEM professions during a time that is unsettling and turbulent for everyone, but especially our school age and university student populations, was our top priority.” — Meridith Bruozas, Educational Programs and Outreach manager
“Argonne continues to adapt and lead impactful science during the ongoing pandemic, a strategy that includes strengthening the STEM pipeline with unique education programs for future scientists and engineers,” said Argonne Director Paul Kearns. “For years, hundreds of students have pursued summer learning opportunities at Argonne that are not available anywhere else. I’m pleased that in 2020 our lab community came together to maintain these high-quality STEM experiences through a successful virtual program for next-generation researchers.”
Each year, Argonne’s undergraduate and graduate programs offer hundreds of interns the unique opportunity to perform scientific work at the lab’s facilities and learn from professional scientists. With interns having already applied and received offers for on-site summer internships, matching them with new virtual alternatives and mentors became an immediate priority and challenge. “All these bright and curious students counted on us to deliver amazing STEM experiences, and we weren’t going to let them down,” University Student Programs lead Lisa Reed said. Argonne successfully placed more than 370 students in summer internships.
An important part of the intern experience is having the students work with mentors — and this year, more than 200 Argonne scientists and researchers supported and guided interns as they developed new skills and applied their academic knowledge to real world projects.
“It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement where we help students find their voice in research,” said Roland Varriale, a cybersecurity analyst in Argonne’s Strategic Security Sciences (SSS) division who has been mentoring students for the last five years. “If you’re looking to constantly improve yourself as a researcher, looking at the different students and what they’re bringing to the table and how you can integrate that into your research can be beneficial.”
As with everything virtual this summer, the intern-mentor connections became all the more crucial. Though the laboratory needed to rematch many interns with different mentors than originally planned to account for the now-virtual internships, these pairings still proved highly successful and satisfying for everyone.
“I loved my internship at Argonne this summer. It was way more than I could have ever imagined having done,” said Community College Internships (CCI) intern Guadalupe Medina, who worked in cybersecurity for SSS during the summer. “I learned more during my internship than I ever have in the classroom at school.”
Interns greatly enjoyed their virtual experiences and the connections they built with mentors, fellow interns, and Argonne’s community. In a survey, 86% of the interns expressed satisfaction with their internships, highlighting the lab’s success this summer. More than that, the interns appreciated having this opportunity in spite of the new challenges created by COVID-19 and social distancing. “I thought I was going to have my internship canceled like my other classmates did,” said Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) intern Ryan Crawford. “I am glad we got to keep the option to stay with Argonne.”
For years, one of the most exciting summer events at Argonne has been the annual Learning on the Lawn event. Spread out between multiple open-air tents on Argonne’s campus, the event gives interns the opportunity to showcase their research, as they display posters and explain their work to Argonne’s research community. The limits on personal and close interaction this summer challenged the team to think of a more creative approach to a laboratory-wide celebration of our summer interns, and thus Learning Off the Lawn was born — a virtual equivalent of the normal event.
“By taking our big celebration virtual, we were able to invite people outside of the Argonne community for the first time,” Reed said. “Students’ university professors, family members and other people important in their lives were able to attend, in addition to Argonne’s scientific community.”
“I want to thank the Argonne community for making this experience possible by converting all these programs,” said Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program (MSIPP) intern Lauren Miller after her Learning Off the Lawn presentation. “Argonne has gone above and beyond making us students feel secure in this remote internship process. I would not be as confident in my pursuit of an Emergency Management position if it weren’t for the leaders of this program who so willingly helped all of us without hesitation.”
Reshaping all these programs into virtual formats on short notice was a large undertaking, made possible by strong teamwork from hundreds of individuals across the laboratory. “Providing STEM opportunities and a constant presence with our next generation of STEM professions during a time that is unsettling and turbulent for everyone, but especially our school age and university student populations, was our top priority,” said Educational Programs and Outreach manager, Meridith Bruozas.
As one of the first steps in the transition to virtual, Argonne hosted a set of virtual STEM sessions called Argonne Live! Running from May 1 to June 1, these Q&A sessions enabled middle and high school students and faculty to connect to Argonne scientists and University of Chicago graduate students and discuss STEM topics like nuclear research, supercomputers, and bioengineering. “It was tricky making this work with so little time beforehand, but we knew this was important, so we all pulled through to make it happen,” said Outreach lead Jessica Burgess.
Overall, Argonne Live! proved a success, with positive feedback from participants. “Argonne Live! was really fun,” said Krista Hawthorne, a chemical engineer who volunteered to participate in the sessions. “Argonne normally hosts all these opportunities for students to see real scientists and discover career paths they didn’t know existed. And with the pandemic, a whole bunch of students who are getting ready to apply for colleges lost those opportunities to hear these things. So switching to Argonne Live! and doing the virtual Q&A helped bridge the gap.”
Each year, Argonne runs many different summer camps, which the laboratory successfully turned into amazing virtual experiences. “We work hard each summer to provide youth with one-of-a-kind experiences at our camps, the kind that will get them curious about science for maybe the first time in their lives and propel them forward in their STEM journeys,” said Argonne Learning Center lead John Domyancich. “The shift to virtual was one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced with the camps, and the resounding success we had with every camp just goes to show just how far we’ve come in making these camps possible.”
Several of Argonne’s summer camps teach invaluable coding skills. Aimed at middle-school girls with no coding experience, CodeGirls@Argonne challenged campers to design their own computer programs. “My favorite part of camp was being able to talk to the computer scientists and the college interns,” a CodeGirls camper said. “I loved this part because I got to learn so much about computer science and what it is like to be a girl in computer science.”
Similarly, the high school Coding for Science camp had teams make their own coding programs, enabling hands-on learning within a virtual format. Big Data Camp, Argonne’s most advanced coding camp, connected data exercises to real world problems, even using data from London’s 19th-century cholera outbreaks to tie in with the current COVID-19 pandemic.
In partnership with the University of Chicago and After School Matters, Argonne hosts the All About Energy (AAE) pre-internship program each summer, and the institutions collaborated to make this year’s virtual program run smoothly. Over 30 high school students, representing more than 20 different schools, connected virtually to find ways to improve environmental and social conditions in their local communities.
“Prior to enrolling in the All About Energy program, I was focused on pursuing Environmental Science in college, and my time during the apprenticeship has only made my focus stronger,” said AAE camper Novotna Talavera. “I do see my group’s sustainability proposal being successful, not only in strengthening the environment if it were to be implemented, but also unifying the Pullman community for years to come.”
This work was supported in part by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS), and Office of Environmental Management; the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement; the Neighborhood Schools Program; and the non-profit After School Matters.
The Argonne Leadership Computing Facility provides supercomputing capabilities to the scientific and engineering community to advance fundamental discovery and understanding in a broad range of disciplines. Supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program, the ALCF is one of two DOE Leadership Computing Facilities in the nation dedicated to open science.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.