The Summer Physics Research Program provides research opportunities for local high school students interested in research, science, and physics. This program, funded by philanthropic support from The Scientech Club Foundation, began in 2002 in the School of Science at IUPUI. Students explore and learn about conducting research at a university, spending the summer in a laboratory alongside faculty and graduate students doing hands-on innovative research supporting a larger research project already in progress.
But in 2020, this program has looked very different. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, program leaders made the decision to continue in a virtual format, which was welcome news to the Foundation.
“The Scientech Club Foundation has supported the Summer Physics Research Program at IUPUI for several years, as that program aligns very well with its goals,” said Joe Abella, secretary for the Foundation. “We are particularly impressed with the flexibility and creativity demonstrated by the Department of Physics this year through its willingness to conduct the program in the face of difficult circumstances presented by the pandemic and the modifications required to maintain a safe and healthy environment for the participants.”
“I felt it was even more important than before coronavirus to keep students busy with useful activities,” Dr. Horia Petrache, associate professor of physics and program leader, said. “I hope that our summer activities contribute significantly to students' intellectual development and to broadening their perspective. Research at the university differs from high school in that both the input and the output cannot be taken for granted. Research is about the unknown.”
There are eight local high school students participating in the Summer Physics Research Program this summer. They are working on a variety of projects which include: building an electronic power supply for a research project that will measure the gravitational constant, determining the mass of stars, and working on a power spectrum analysis of musical instruments. Students are selected through an application process coordinated in partnership with other IUPUI summer research programs for high school students, including Project STEM. While these students focused on physics research, this coordination with other summer programs gave students the opportunity to interact and learn together through presentations and professional development activities.
Muntu Munaf is beginning his senior year at Hamilton Southeastern High School, and he has taken every physics course that is offered. This summer research experience allowed him to build on those courses and reinforced his goal of pursuing an education in a science field.
“The great thing about this program is that it’s not just reading articles that we can find on our own. It’s a lot of hands-on work too,” Munaf said. “I’ve been able to discover more things about something that I’m not very well-versed in.” Munaf’s project this summer focused on properties of neutrino oscillation and explaining why neutrinos interact with matter in the way that they do.
Dr. Yogesh Joglekar has been serving as a mentor for more than 10 years. For him, the program at its base level, is about tinkering and providing a great environment that fosters exploration and critical thinking. “We don’t really care what the problem is, we care about the skill set to learn how to solve a problem that is interesting,” Joglekar said. “As long as it lies in the domain of our abilities, we will go for it.”
The move to a virtual format has brought a few challenges. Communication moves a bit slower, and there is less of an opportunity for students to see how a lab truly operates when all interactions are conducted through zoom. However, the exposure to research and science, whether in-person or virtual, is still important and critical for students, according to Dr. Ricardo Decca, who helped start the program years ago and has regularly served as a mentor.
Lilia Arrizabalaga will be a senior at Zionsville High School, and she is working on a project on measuring the mass of a star. She has always been interested in astronomy, and this program has allowed her to gain valuable research experience. “I’ve never done research before, and I find the whole process very interesting,” Arrizabalaga said. “This program is different than school because you have to find a lot of different sources to solve a problem.”
Despite the uniqueness of this summer’s program, Dr. Petrache believes it will help to prepare students for their future. “It gives them a chance to see if they really like physics and science research,” Petrache said. “It looks different in movies than in reality. And if they still like it despite the ups and downs, it gives them a solid starting point and hopefully helps fuel their interest in science.”
By: Sarah Shroyer