Before this summer, going to college seemed impossible to Casey Claveria, a rising senior at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, Maryland. A problem-solver at heart, Claveria was set on a career in STEM but did not know how to get there. A University of Maryland program called PROPEL—Physics Research Opportunity for Promoting Equity in Learning—changed that.
PROPEL aims to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in physics by exposing high school students to cutting-edge university research. When UMD’s Department of Physics established its Climate Committee in 2020 to ensure a welcoming and supportive environment, graduate student commit tee members Landry Horimbere (B.S. ’16, physics; B.S. ’16, physical sciences) and Ananya Sitaram decided to set the program into motion.
“PROPEL is a really important step toward addressing the transition between high school and undergrad and getting more students interested in doing physics in college by showing them what you can do with physics,” Sitaram said.
In fall 2020, 17% of undergraduate physics majors at UMD were underrepresented minorities and 20% were female. The Climate Committee quickly acknowledged the importance of investing time and resources in the high school-to-college pipeline.
“There’s direct value in recruiting underrepresented students and giving them a research experience. It demystifies physics, engineering, mathematics for students early on,” Horimbere said. “If you go into physics and take the classes, you’ll learn a lot of formal material, but it’s not as involved or interesting as thinking about unsolved problems and conducting research.”
Horimbere and Sitaram presented PROPEL to high school students at the Conference for Undergraduate Underrepresented Minorities in Physics (CU2MIP) in January 2021 and encouraged them to apply. During the spring semester, they planned a daily itinerary for the summer program and enlisted physics faculty members—including Gretchen Campbell, Alicia Kollár and Dan Lathrop—to give lectures and lead workshops.
Three high school students were accepted into this summer’s pilot program and paired with mentors based on their research interests. For two months, the students worked daily on their research projects while also attending professional development workshops and lectures and participating in community-building activities. Horimbere, Sitaram and physics graduate students Peter Elgee and Naren Manjunath served as mentors.
Claveria worked with Sitaram and Elgee on atomic physics research, using lasers to cool strontium atoms down to close to 0 K (“absolute zero” temperature), where quantum physics takes over. After flashing the atoms with sequences of laser pulses and taking images of the atom clouds throughout, Sitaram and Elgee measure how the state of the atoms changes. Claveria worked on a coding project to measure those changes.
“Her project is essential to our lab running, because the code that she has written calculates the number of atoms, the temperature and width of the cloud, parameters like that,” Sitaram explained. “This type of analysis is necessary in any experiment in atomic physics.”
The other high school students in the program, Abriana Medina and Kalkidan Michael, studied random walks and saltwater conductivity, respectively.
Medina worked with Manjunath to use Python to compare types of random walks, the process by which randomly moving objects wander away from where they started. The flight path of a cicada or the path traced by a molecule as it travels in a liquid are both examples of random walks that scientists use to model various patterns.
With mentorship from Horimbere, Michael designed and built an experiment to run varying voltages through different levels of turbulence in saltwater to see how much the resistance changed. The goal of this experiment was to provide insight into the potential inefficiencies of a magnetohydrodynamic power plant.
Now that the summer and PROPEL have come to a close, Claveria plans to pursue research opportunities in college and use the information she learned about how to apply for scholarships and other resources to help make college a reality.
“Since I aim to be in a STEM field in the future, I plan to use combinations of what I learned throughout the program in my college career,” Claveria said. “Though I learned basic Python in high school, this program taught me how to utilize it to make graphs and do more complex calculations involving statistics and calculus.”
Teaching high school students and bringing them into research projects required the mentors to take a step back and find ways to make complex physics concepts easier for the students to understand.
“One of my favorite things to do in research is help someone get a result on a project,” Horimbere said. “Together, we get to see exactly how known results come about instead of just plugging variables into an equation that you could find in a reference. Simply doing the calculation yourself is actually quite enlightening. We also get to be surprised by unexpected results that we try to reconcile with existing knowledge.”
PROPEL’s eight-week program culminated in the students presenting their research to the mentors, program coordinators and Donna Hammer, director of education for the Department of Physics.
“What’s great about this pilot for PROPEL is that it’s something these graduate students conceived and put together,” said Peter Shawhan, a physics professor and the chair of the department’s Climate Committee. “It’s a sign of the energy our students have to be proactive about improving diversity and better serving students and the community as a whole by incorporating more people into the scientific effort.”
Looking ahead, Horimbere wants to expand recruiting efforts for this program and enlist faculty members to serve in advisory roles.
“I am convinced that with modest financial support and careful planning, PROPEL would scale very well and have a significant impact on the readiness and diversity of incoming physics and, more generally, STEM students,” Horimbere said.
For Claveria, the PROPEL experience made her less nervous to attend college. From giving her a UMD campus tour to answering her questions about the physics profession to offering tips for scholarships, Sitaram’s mentorship meant everything.
“The best part of this program are the mentors—Ananya felt like a big sister to me. She really inspires me,” Claveria said. “PROPEL gave me more experience with research and made me feel more comfortable with harder concepts in Python, calculus and more.”
Written by Katie Bemb