Highlanders mentor teens aspiring to STEM careers

UCR hosts STEM Solutions 2022, a summer learning lab for local high school students

August 9, 2022
Author: Malinn Loeung
August 9, 2022

Approximately 70 high school students who are considering careers in STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and math, industries spent three days at the UC Riverside campus engaging with industry experts and other teens from surrounding Riverside and San Bernardino County high schools, many of them from Riverside Unified School District. 

STEM Solutions 2022
(Riverside Unified School District/Jordan Smith

STEM Solutions, a free, hands-on, annual summer learning lab focusing on real-life environmental issues affecting our communities is hosted by STEP, Science & Technology Education Partnerships. This year’s theme — STEM Solutions for a Healthy Future and Sustainable Environmental Leadership — asked participants to collect information and data from government and business resources, a challenge they met at various Riverside locations like Bourns Technology Center and California Air Resources Board. They were also asked to reflect and brainstorm in small teams; apply what they learned over the week to formulate sustainability solutions; and present their Design Challenge Projects to a panel of judges that included UCR STEM faculty and research students. 


Scholarship funds totaling $2,250 were awarded to the top three performing teams, with all participants earning school credit. Winners were announced on the last day of the program with a $1,000 first prize going to team “Jalumachavili” — a clever mashup of the team members' first names: Jacob, Luke, Maryah, Chandler, Vivian, and Julian. Their solution, Green Monster, consumes and converts the greenhouse gas CO2 and returns it to the soil. The team proposed Green Monster would be most effective in areas with poor air quality and limited resources and estimated the production cost at $2,214.


Other program activities at UCR included a tour of Agricultural Operations with Peggy Ann Mauk, UCR’s director of agricultural operations and subtropical horticulture CE specialist; patent advice from Kathryn Uhrich, dean of the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, and a lecture about using STEM to service disadvantaged communities with Rosibel Ochoa, UCR’s associate vice chancellor of the office of technology partnerships; water conservation discussions and air pollution workshops where students built homemade air purifiers; and tours of the Center for Environmental Research & Technology, or CE-CERT, and Bourns facilities.


“Throughout the program, students experienced STEM in a variety of flavors,” said Ariana Firebaugh Ornelas, UCR Ph.D. candidate in evolution, ecology, and organismal biology and STEM Solutions organizer.


But the most anticipated flavors of this week-long program? The ones experienced at the complimentary all-you-care-to-eat lunch at UCR’s Glasgow Dining Hall — a sentiment shared by both the high school and UCR students.


Dr. David Lo, senior associate dean for research in the School of Medicine and a distinguished professor of biomedical sciences, spoke during one session about how air pollution from the Salton Sea mainly affects non-English speakers who migrated from places like Michoacán, Mexico. A question was posed about how public agencies could better spread messages regarding lung health to people who don’t read/speak English. One of the high schoolers offered the solution of using social media posts produced in their native language — a very Gen Z answer.


Although UCR has been part of STEP over its 22-year run and part of STEM Learning Labs since its inception in 2016, this is the first year UCR has contributed to the organization of the weeklong STEM Solutions program, which was led by Loralee Larios, an assistant professor of botany and plant sciences


“I would have to say the best part was having students at the end of the week say that they wanted to come to UCR for a degree in STEM,” Larios said of the experience.

Advice from UCR students to teens passionate about STEM:


“You can do STEM anywhere and everywhere. Challenge yourself to make connections to STEM in everyday life — in a farmer’s market, at a coffee shop, or at the beach. Never limit yourself.” — Sonali Bhakta, pursuing a B.S. in biochemistry and a minor in law & society


“Be curious and be positive. We need curiosity to find potential research questions, and at the same time, we need to be positive to keep walking along the way of science.” — Yaning Miao, Ph.D. candidate in environmental science


“Take the chance to explore every curiosity they have. When you are able to combine curiosity with knowledge, science can become a very fascinating and intriguing field.” — Ashley J. Trinidad, pursuing a B.S. in neuroscience


“We are in the golden age of self-service information, but don't undervalue what can be gained with even a little communication. After doing independent research on your interest, take the next step and reach out to resources in your vicinity and often you will gain a lot more than just answers. Insights, opportunities, further connections, and even careers can open for you by just talking to people in the field.” — Benjamin Nyman, Ph.D. candidate in entomology