Getting paid to learn for the summer

For most Petaluma students, the classroom becomes a fuzzy memory when the dog days of summer roll around. But a handful of Casa Grande High School students are bucking that trend by dedicating their free months as interns at Sonoma State University. In addition to furthering their education, students get the added bonus of taking home a paycheck for their work.

Priscilla Ng and Henry Steiner are two of the 15 high school students working for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program, collecting data in the lab and studying human subjects in their selected fields.

They faced fierce competition for their internship — likely because of the paycheck the position commands — and only 15 out of 80 applicants were hired. Nearly as rigorous as a fulltime job, the interns are asked to work a total of 160 hours in their field during the summer.

“I usually work close to 40 hours a week, about eight hours per day,” said Steiner, a senior at Casa. “If we complete the equivalent of four full-time weeks — 160 hours I believe — we get paid $1,000.”

But for most, the money isn’t nearly as important as the experience that comes from taking part in the program, whether that’s studying rock climbers or crafting camera lenses.

Ng, a Casa senior who is interested in pursuing the field of engineering, has spent her summer break studying kinesiology, which she describes simply as “the study of human movement.”

“Since we’re doing kinesiology, we have human subjects,” she explained. “One study we did was on the effects of sodium bicarbonate ­— baking soda, pretty much — on a rock climber. It’s supposed to delay lactic acid, so you don’t feel as sore and can go faster for longer periods of time.”

While Ng has been charting the activity of rock climbers, Steiner’s work has been in the computer lab, demonstrating the flexibility of the internship based on a student’s interest. Steiner has spent his time designing optical equipment, such as apertures used in scientific equipment.

To that end, Steiner has learned his way around a 3D printer, and so far he’s printed a variety of practical items such as optical posts, as well as slightly stranger objects like an octopus, platypus, shark, hedgehog, space shuttle and a “Harry Potter” inspired time-turner capable of revolving. While having fun, he’s also learning the business side of science. For example, the optical post costs 60 cents to print, while it markets for $60.

“I call that a profit,” said Steiner.

He joked that if he fails to complete his required 160 hours, he might turn to the 3D printer to make his $1,000, which he’d reach by printing about 17 optical posts.

The internship is geared toward getting students excited about 21st century sciences, to perhaps inspire youth to pursue the field as a major.

“Science just kind of explains everything: why things work, why things don’t work,” Ng said. “Everyone has iPhones, but not everyone knows how they work.”

With plans to pursue a degree in engineering, Ng is already part of a relatively small demographic of students. But as a woman in the sciences, she is even more rare; only 18 percent of all college engineering majors are female.

“I feel like it’s a social stigma, you know, that girls should stay home, be parents, raise children and such,” said Ng. It’s an issue that goes back to early childhood, she said. “We don’t get blocks. We get Barbies.”

Part of the reason the internship exists is to allow the most promising students a chance to apply real world science, and learn what a science degree can lead toward.

“I think this program is very valuable for exposing students to opportunities they might not have considered because of gender stereotypes or for other reasons,” said Suzanne Rivoire, a Sonoma State University computer sciences professor who also selects the students for the internship program. “So if a student’s interests are more flexible, I try to keep that in mind.”

(Contact Quinn Pieper at argus@arguscourier.com)