IBM-Illinois connection spurs on collaborative learning, research opportunities

8/21/2023 Aaron Seidlitz

Written by Aaron Seidlitz

Powerful interactions that support Grainger Engineering’s efforts in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion began with funding from the IBM-Illinois Discovery Accelerator Institute.
Powerful interactions that support Grainger Engineering’s efforts in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion began with funding from the IBM-Illinois Discovery Accelerator Institute.

Four graduate students approached a unique challenge this year – design and run a new camp entitled Learning Electronics, AI, and Programming (LEAP) for high school students. Each of the 20 participants came from a different background and with varying experience levels in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. 

In advance of the initial LEAP camp – supported by funding from the IBM-Illinois Discovery Accelerator Institute (IIDAI) and taking place from June 25 – July 1 at The Grainger College of Engineering’s Electrical and Computer Engineering department – the student coordinators collaborated on developing an accessible curriculum that encouraged individual interests to help break through with the campers.

The coordinators steered attendees through hands-on lessons that covered a number of topics and resulted in a built and operational weather station they could take home:

  • Day 1: Programming basics and setting up the development environment
  • Day 2: Electronics lessons on concepts like GPS, the LCD screen, the thermistor, and more
  • Day 3: AI lessons in machine learning and linear algebra
  • Day 4: Build day for the weather station
  • Day 5: Websites and cloud computing lessons

While success was measured in several ways, they all agreed about what it looked like when they saw it.

“At the end of the experience, we offered our campers the opportunity to give a short presentation to all the parents about what they had built. Over a quarter of our students volunteered to present their projects and discuss what they learned. Seeing their happy smiles mirrored in the faces of their parents as they discussed their projects was the best experience of the camp,” said Scott Smith, a third-year Ph.D. student advised by professor Deming Chen.

“For me, success was seeing campers express their joy and feeling of accomplishment when they overcame a challenge. One camper was struggling with a self-imposed challenge to add a rainbow effect to his LCD display. When he cheered and showed me what he made, I knew that we were doing something right,” said Nikita Duggar, a third-year Ph.D. student advised by professor Lynford Goddard.

“Naturally, the most rewarding experience for me were the Proustian moments when LEAP campers would be beaming with excitement upon understanding and applying their knowledge of a physical phenomenon previously unknown to them – much like my younger self,” said Jack Huang, a fifth-year Ph.D. student also advised by Goddard.

The coordinators began planning for the camp during the previous spring semester, expanding from an idea Smith had. Duggar and Huang quickly became the other primary coordinators, and Alex Littlefield, a fourth-year Ph.D. student advised by Goddard, joined as soon as the spring semester ended.

Each coordinator pointed toward their advisors, Chen and Goddard, as instrumental to the camp’s development through their guidance, help with purchasing and furthering new connections.

Lara Hebert, assistant director of Outreach & Public Engagement with Grainger Engineering, helped administrative planning for the camp. A curriculum specialist, Jana Sebestik, provided feedback on the teaching methodologies. ECE staff helped the coordinators best understand camp materials, equipment and lab space.

Two more students, Emily Liu and Frank Sprandel, served as camp counselors, facilitating fun and engaging evening activities for campers who attended both as commuters and residential guests at Hendrick House Residence Hall.

“For me, success was seeing campers express their joy and feeling of accomplishment when they overcame a challenge," said Nikita Duggar, a third-year Ph.D. student.

Each camp coordinator has a research interest embedded within ECE. For example, Huang has had a “lifelong fascination with the beauty of waves” that led him to focus his Ph.D. research on 3D photonic integrated circuits. And Duggar found an undergraduate fascination with the combination of electrons and photons guiding her toward graduate school.

But for Smith, his primary emphasis remains rooted in STEM education. Having worked with graduate and undergraduate students previously, he was thrilled that the LEAP camp helped him better understand the needs of high school students.

“Education is critically important. Furthermore, everyone came to this camp with different strengths and weaknesses, backgrounds and experiences,” Smith said. “My job as an educator is to provide tools for my students to succeed. Therefore, I must provide paths for all my students to succeed. This is what DEI means to me in this context – creating a space where everyone has an opportunity to grow and learn.

“Some LEAP campers were programming wizards, and others had never written a line of code before. The greatest reward was seeing that all our campers left with working projects, proving what they learned during the camp.”

CISTEME365, Young Scholars Research Program reach students, educators

Beginning in 2019, Goddard has worked with Hebert to execute a three-year $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation known as CISTEME365.

Their work in this area extended beyond the original timeframe due to difficulties hosting efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Goddard said that for this summer’s activities, IIDAI provided instrumental funding support to enable the program to be offered again this year. 

The fundamental project goal is to broaden access and participation in STEM for middle and high school students by presenting opportunities for sustained, intensive, hands-on STEM learning experiences that build technical knowledge and ability, and that offer insight into different STEM majors and careers.

Lara Hebert, WYSE Assistant Director, Outreach & Public Engagement
Lara Hebert, WYSE Assistant Director, Outreach & Public Engagement

CISTEME365, along with partners from the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity, relies on three programmatic pillars.

First, CISTEME365 provides training and co-learning opportunities for high school and junior high teachers, counselors, STEM coordinators, principals or other school staff who want to participate. This integrated engineering and inclusive teaching training experience empowers attendees to go back to their schools properly equipped to offer increased access to equitable and inclusive STEM environments.

Second, the school staff participants facilitate year-round hands-on project-based engineering activities for their students by launching STEM clubs.

Thirdly, the program provides scholarships so that students can come to Illinois for an immersive STEM summer camp. Many students choose to explore several different engineering fields through the Exploring Your Options or the Discover Engineering camps.

By taking this approach, Goddard believes CISTEME365 will not only impact the in-person attendees who are both educators and students but extend that experience to somewhere between 500 and 1,000 students across the state.

“It sometimes surprises you, but you can tell, over time, the impact made. For example, just a few weeks ago we received a thank you note from a 2015 camper. She wrote back, asking how to become a mentor in Chicago. She’s now going to be involved in outreach work,” Goddard said. “That’s the incredibly long game, and the payouts for which are not always obvious, but when they do appear I'm just amazed.”

Lynford Goddard, ECE professor and Founding Director of the Institute for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access (IDEA)
Lynford Goddard, ECE professor and Founding Director of the Institute for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access (IDEA)

Also, over the summer, Hebert leads the Grainger Engineering Young Scholars (GEnYus) Research Program, which welcomed incoming 10th - 12th graders from Illinois and Indiana. This program also benefits from IIDAI funding, providing support for two Young Scholars to explore Quantum Computing with faculty and graduate student mentors from the ECE department.

Attendees began an online orientation June 14, then in-person research on June 21, and concluded their experience with an in-person final symposium on July 28.

“Young Scholars is clearly an intensive program, which makes it one of my favorites,” Hebert said. “The students are here and engaged for so long, you really get to see their growth. Even though most don’t know much about the topics they come here to study, by the end, they're presenting about it in terms that make others ask them to explain further. Not only can they explain it, but they do so enthusiastically and knowledgeably.”

Undergraduate research instrumental to enriching student experiences

The path to ensuring a student’s spark in STEM education goes well beyond summer activities, though, as IIDAI provides financial support for 20 undergraduate students’ research activities per year in its Undergraduate Research Experiences (URE) Program.

Through the institute’s dedication to DEI efforts, these students earn research scholarships and the opportunity to do research for two semesters with faculty members and researchers who are experts in the IIDAI thrust areas – Hybrid Cloud & AI, Materials Discovery, Quantum Computing, and Sustainability.

As both the Director of the Illinois Scholars Undergraduate Research (ISUR) Program and Associate Director for Undergraduate Research with Grainger Engineering, Natasha Mamaril values research experiences that enrich the student experience.

“Students may enter their engineering programs with a vague understanding of what engineering is about. I believe that students’ experiences are crucial to their appreciation of engineering and their future roles as engineers. Since my research work has been focused on women and minorities in STEM, I see the importance of providing students access to research experiences,” Mamaril said.

Natasha Mamaril, Associate Director for Undergraduate Research at The Grainger College of Engineering
Natasha Mamaril, Associate Director for Undergraduate Research at The Grainger College of Engineering

Her own path began with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and doing research as an undergrad, then working in industry for nine years before pursuing her PhD. As Mamaril began her work at Illinois in 2014, she engaged with undergraduate engineering students and became amazed by the difference made when Grainger Engineers find a research spark.

One of the past IIDAI URE scholars shared, “I had a great time conducting research. I had a lot of freedom to explore what I wanted to, which has motivated me to pursue research in graduate school.”

“We know that undergraduate research experiences are transformative learning experiences. At Grainger Engineering, undergraduates not only learn about the research process and become aware of what graduate school is like, but also, they gain an understanding of their roles as engineers – whether they intend to pursue a career in academia and/or in industry,” she said. “The IIDAI URE program expands the college’s offering of undergraduate research opportunities and provides undergraduate scholars access to technology. We hope that the program will help minimize the gap in the representation of minority groups in engineering and professional-technical areas.”

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This story was published August 21, 2023.