A Sunny Summer of Engineering for High Schoolers

August 20, 2019

Local high school students gain lab experience through DukeREP, a summer outreach program launched in Duke BME

The DukeREP team with the participating high school students

The DukeREP team with the participating high school students

By the time summer rolls around, most high school students are ready to leave the confines of the classroom to go on family vacations or to save up money with a part-time job. That wasn’t the case for a select group of students who instead spent their summer at Duke University coding cochlear implants, studying models of rare diseases, and programming LED arrays to help image cancerous tissue.

These research opportunities were possible thanks to the Duke Research in Engineering Program, also called DukeREP––a seven-week summer experience for high school students interested in studying engineering and science in college. Created to help increase diversity in STEM, the program matches students from Durham Public Schools with labs across Duke, where they work on projects with PhD student and faculty mentors to get a glimpse of life as an engineering student.

“While DukeREP is open to all high school juniors and seniors in our community, we prioritize the selection of underrepresented groups in STEM and students from underprivileged backgrounds, as opportunities like this are often disproportionately accessible to individuals from well-connected families,” says Hala El-Nahal, a PhD student in BME and co-founder and president of DukeREP. “Because high school students are at a critical stage in selecting their career paths, we hope to encourage them to pursue higher education by preparing them for the college application process, and to promote their interest in STEM and encourage them to pursue careers in STEM by immersing them in laboratory research for seven weeks.”

When the program was launched in the summer of 2018, DukeREP was concentrated in Duke’s biomedical engineering department. But as the program has grown, students have also been able to work with mentors in other departments, including electrical and computer engineering and mechanical engineering and materials science.

“DukeREP was an amazing opportunity to experience what it’s like to do real research in a lab, and to learn about what it takes to work in a more professional setting,” says DukeREP student Felix Liu, who spent his summer studying different treatment strategies for lesions within coronary arteries. “I really enjoyed the freedom I had with my project. Engineering has always enticed me, and this program was a great opportunity to be immersed in the research side of engineering before college.”

In addition to their research projects, DukeREP students participated in weekly social activities and seminars, where they were able to learn more about how to adjust to life in college. They also attended courses on college advising, professional development, common application essay writing and resume writing workshops, and listened to presentations from professors and PhD students about a variety of topics across engineering. At the end of the program, the students shared their research at an engineering poster session to help practice presentation skills.

“This program introduced me to both geometrical optics and coding, and that led me to sign up for more science courses at my school this upcoming year,” says Elizabeth Teka, who worked on a project involving efficient data transfer in the Litchinitser lab. “I’ve been interested in engineering since middle school, but this program introduced me to different departments of engineering, and after attending a seminar with Dr. Tantum I’m seriously considering studying machine learning.”

“Biomedical engineering was already attractive to me because it feels like a spectrum of opportunities are available to you, where you can work on innovative tools while doing biological research in a lab,” says Marwa Bakri, who completed her project in the Ramanujam lab and received first place at the DukeREP poster session. “Being an engineer always seemed difficult or out of reach, but this program definitely made it seem like more of a possibility. I don’t know what I’ll be studying in college yet, but it was helpful to see how interdisciplinary engineering, specifically BME, can be.”

To learn more about the DukeREP program, visit: https://sites.duke.edu/dukerep/