URBANA — In their white lab coats, Madisen LeShoure and Rola Abudayeh throw around scientific terms such as “hydrophobic” and “micro goniometer” like real research pros.
Which they are, in fact, becoming through a program offered by the University of Illinois and funded by the National Science Foundation.
The two Champaign Central High School students are participating in the Young Scholars Program at the Grainger College of Engineering. Now in its third year, the program immerses 25 to 30 local high school students in a research project on campus for six weeks during the summer.
Six of them, including LeShoure and Abudayeh, get to continue that research during the school year, working two hours a week with UI scientists. They will also participate in the Emerging Researchers National Conference in Washington, D.C., in February, presenting their results alongside college students from across the nation.
Both said the opportunity has exposed them to new people, skills and career possibilities.
“This program has opened my eyes to so many varieties of majors and science fields that I didn’t know existed,” LeShoure said. “It has honestly helped me grow as a person, working through the difficulties of research and long hours.”
The program encourages underrepresented students to apply, though it’s open to all. Applicants write essays stating how they can uniquely benefit from the program.
Two students from three Champaign-Urbana public high schools — Central, Centennial and Urbana — are chosen for the year-round program and assigned to a research team, along with one teacher from each school.
The Urbana and Central teams work with the NSF-funded Power Optimization of Electro-Thermal Systems center, or POETS, which is headquartered at Illinois, in partnership with the departments of physics and bioengineering. Another NSF initiative, the Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation mentoring program, supports the Centennial team, said program coordinator Joe Muskin.
The POETS center was created with a $20 million NSF grant to do research on the electrification of devices — hybrid cars, electric jets and the like — to improve efficiency and address greenhouse gases, Muskin said.
‘Learned so many things’
The Emerging Frontiers program researches materials with properties that allow waves to move in only one direction — with applications for the wings of aircraft, for example.
LeShoure and Abudayeh are studying hydrophobic surfaces, which are extremely water repellent, similar to a car wax that makes water bead up but “water doesn’t stick at all,” Muskin said.
The work relates to a goal of POETS, to create materials that move heat efficiently for cooling purposes — a big issue for electronic devices; for instance the Samsung phone batteries and hoverboards that burst into flames awhile back.
On Friday, Abudayeh and LeShoure demonstrated their work in Professor Nenad Miljkovic’s mechanical engineering lab.
They coat a small plate of aluminum or copper with a chemical to make it water repellent. Then they test it with the micro goniometer, which dispenses tiny droplets of water onto the surface and takes readings every second of the contact angle to see how well the material performs. The higher the angle, the more hydrophobic it is, the students explain. They also test evaporation rates.
The work is useful to the petroleum industry, power plants or dehumidifiers, Abudayeh said.
“I’ve learned so many things,” LeShoure said. “I’ve learned the importance of research, and how what we’re doing is helping better the community, and the science community, as a whole.”
The high school teachers help move the research projects along and serve as a bridge between the graduate student and high schoolers, Muskin said.
‘A great head start’
The teachers weren’t included the first year, and the “students were overwhelmed,” he said. High school students are often too intimidated to ask a graduate student to explain something they don’t understand, he said.
“The teacher now can kind of be that bridge ... making sure that everybody understands what’s going on,” he said.
Last year, a postdoctoral researcher working with the Central students “was using a term that I could tell one of the students was not understanding,” said Central chemistry teacher Tom Gelsthorpe. He intervened to ask for clarification and to show the students that asking questions is an excellent way to learn about the research process.
Abudayeh said Gelsthorpe helped relate the science back to things they had learned in chemistry class.
“Without Mr. G, we’d be overwhelmed and confused,” LeShoure said.
The graduate students also benefit by learning how to explain their research to people outside their field, Muskin said.
And the high school teachers get a deeper knowledge of the latest research in engineering and related fields.
“Students have improved their understanding of the research process, as have I,” Gelsthorpe said. “They have also gotten a great head start on future science careers by learning how to use some specific instruments, but more importantly, how to communicate their work to others.”
Abudayeh, who is originally from Catlin, heard about the program when she moved to Champaign in January and decided to apply to “discover something new that I’ve never done before.”
“It kind of just helped me expand my knowledge and become a better person,” she said.
She had hoped to major in biology or chemistry and eventually become a pediatrician, but now she’s toying with combining medicine and engineering.
LeShoure had thought about psychology or neuroscience, but “this program has made me second guess what I want to do — in a good way.”
Both students said the UI is their “dream school.”
Past participants have given presentations about their work to college students, professors and school board members.
“Seeing how the students who researched last summer really blossomed in their confidence and abilities to explain the research they engaged in has been extremely gratifying,” Gelsthorpe said.