Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to help advise two high school seniors. Both students, Sophia and Jordan, attend a private school here in western Massachusetts. As part of their graduation requirements, all the seniors that attend the school must participate in a two-week internship with a local company, college, university, hospital, etc. to gain some employment and/or lab experience. Sophia and Jordan have both been accepted into universities beginning this fall, and both want to work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields. So it made sense that the girls work at UMass in labs to gain some hands-on experience.
The high schoolers initially contacted our department head, Professor Julie Brigham-Grette, in the Geosciences Department at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Dr. Brigham-Grette has worked with high school seniors from this particular high school in previous years, and thus the teachers at this school know her well. That is how the students knew to contact her. I was able to be involved with the girls and their internship because Dr. Brigham-Grette knew I was doing a lot of lab work, was around this summer, and could use the extra help. And indeed, I did need the extra help around my lab!
Dr. Brigham-Grette and I met before the students started to discuss what projects we wanted them to work on. We made a list of four major tasks. The first was to identify the types of rocks that our classroom desk tops are made of. My department purchased the counter tops (which were cut down to desk-top size) from a local company. The second task was to begin building a blog to tell students and people about the different rock types and what minerals they contained. The third task was to help me organize and label all my samples from the four ocean sites I’m currently working with. The fourth task was to learn how to weigh and wash sediment samples. The students were only with us for two weeks, so we had plenty of tasks to keep them busy and learning!
The first day the students arrived, I had both of them work with me. The first thing I did was to show them around our department, which included peeking into the different labs and explaining the major types of science that our professors and graduate students conduct. Then we went to lunch on campus (fun fact: UMass Amherst is ranked #1 in the country by the Princeton Review for Best Campus Food). After lunch, I taught Sophia and Jordan how to read the labels on my samples (for an overview of how we label our sediment samples from the deep sea and how to read them, see this post). Then, I had them color-code each sample with different colored dots. I’ve done a number of different analyses with my samples, so it’s useful to know which sample I’ve used for which analysis. The students were able to finish this task of sorting and labeling by the third day! From this activity, they learned how to read sediment samples and how scientists collect the sediment cores.
On the second day, I began teaching the students how to process my sediment samples. These samples were from sediment cores we collected last summer in the Tasman Sea. The way I needed to process these samples differed from what I normally do. First, we needed to weigh the entire sample when it was dry (which is basically a chunk of dried mud). Then, we needed to wash the dried mud sample over a sieve in the sink to collect the tiny microfossils contained in the mud. After the sample was washed, we then dried it in the oven overnight. Once completely dried, we re-weighed the sieved sediment. With the weight of the mud sample and the weight of the fossils, I can then calculate what weight percent of the mud is from foraminifera, the microfossils I work with. This number also tells me how much carbonate (the mineral that my microfossils make their shells out of) accumulated in the oceans at any one time! Sophia and Jordan both donned lab coats and glasses and worked together to get a good amount of the mud samples weighed.
In the afternoon, we split Sophia and Jordan up: Sophia stayed with me in my lab, and Jordan went with Dr. Brigham-Grette to begin identifying the desk top rocks in one of our classrooms. I had already weighed and dried some of the mud samples before the students started working with us so I could teach Sophia all steps of sample processing in one day. Sophia spent the afternoon washing sediment over the sieve. By the end of the day, Jordan had compiled a list of names for most of the rocks in our classroom!
The rest of our time with the students included them bouncing between my lab and the classroom to ID desk top rocks. After about a week of both girls working with the desk tops, they had created a spreadsheet with information about each rock type, such as the types of minerals in each rock, the age, the name of the formation from which each rock came from, and where the formation was located. However, we were still missing a lot of this information, especially the age, name of the formation, and where the rock actually came from. So, Dr. Brigham-Grette and I decided to take the students to the company where the Geosciences department purchased the rocks. I had never been to a countertop outlet, but needless to say, we all had a blast! The company, Granite Creations, had an awesome selection of different rocks used for countertops on display outside of their warehouse. Every rock slab was polished and absolutely beautiful! Dr. Brigham-Grette and I nerded out for about half an hour looking at all the rocks and trying to identify the minerals in each. After taking tons of selfies and images of the rocks, we then talked to the sales representatives about the information we needed. They didn’t have all the information at hand, but were very happy to take our information and look it all up for us!
One of our last days with the students, we still wanted to teach them how to set up a website/blog about the rock tables they’d worked so hard to identify, and introduce them to some HTML coding. So, since I have now been involved in creating three websites, I sat down with the students and Dr. Brigham-Grette and showed them how to make static pages on a site, and how to make blog posts. After the framework of the site was up, we let the students add in information and images. The site it far from finished, and different people in our department will continue to flesh out the information in the coming months, but here’s the site: Geo Rock Tables. We were thrilled with the layout and images that Sophia and Jordan picked!
All in all, Sophia and Jordan worked a total of 40 hours with Dr. Brigham-Grette and I at UMass. From our four main activities, the students learned a lot: how to process sediment samples, what data can be obtained from weighing the mud and sieved sediment, the importance of scientific ocean drilling, how to set up a website and blog, introduction to HTML coding, and the different types of rocks used in the countertop industry. They also gained valuable work experience, such as showing up to a job on time, learning how to do tasks, and learning how to successfully execute those tasks. I was very proud of the work both students accomplished while they were with us, and was sad to see them go! Because of Jordan and Sophia’s hard work helping me process my sediment samples, I was able to begin other analyses with them, and am currently ahead of schedule on a particular project!
Some personal thoughts: Not all high school students get the chance the explore a field, career, or job they might be interested in before committing to college or trade school. But I think exploring different types of careers is great for students, and gives them an idea of what type of career they’d like to go into.
If you are a high school student, or a parent/guardian of a high schooler, and think they’d be interested in working in a lab, reach out to your local university! If your student loves animals, for example, go to your local college or university’s website and find their Biology department. Each department should have a page that lists the professors (commonly under ‘Faculty’). Look for the department head, and shoot them an email asking if your student could intern with a professor or graduate student. I guarantee that there is at least one graduate student or professor who would jump at the opportunity to have an extra set of hands help in the lab over the summer!