Community college students explore STEM research

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As science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, add 9 million jobs by 2022 (US Bureau of Labor Statistics), companies have to keep an eye on evolving disciplines and take special care to help prepare students for these careers. This is why IBM has early outreach programs, the latest of which is a new summer intern program between Hartnell Community College and IBM’s research lab in Almaden, California, home of tech firsts like the disk drive, and the TrueNorth brain chip.

Hartnell’s campus of 16,000 students in Salinas, California, is a rural town on the outside of Silicon Valley’s southern border, and is located more than 100 miles from the tech region’s epicenter, San Francisco. The area is better known for its agriculture industry, and R&D resources for broad STEM development are limited.

“There are several [Hartnell] professors there who are very intent on exposing their students to the R&D environment,” said Dr. Jane Frommer, the IBM Research-Almaden scientist who arranged the internship program.

One of those Hartnell professors, Dr. Sewan Fan, has worked with Frommer for years in a joint effort to expose Hartnell students to IBM’s research environment. Twice a year, Fan brings his students to Frommer’s nanotechnology lab so they can observe and learn from IBM researchers.

“Professor Fan handpicks a contingent of students for their diligence in the classroom, and a particular interest in the type of science and technology that we do,” said Frommer. “They don’t have to be all ‘A’ students – that’s not the point. Instead they must show a curiosity and a real drive to do good work and to get ahead and learn more.”

In January of this year, Fan contacted Frommer, proposing an extension of Hartnell’s relationship with IBM Research by creating internship opportunities for Hartnell undergraduates. In just three months they established a new summer internship program – working through the logistics in record time to be ready for this summer.

Hartnell’s first summer interns go to work

On June 6, Omar Cervantes, a mechanical engineering student, and Luis Castro, an electrical engineering student, stepped onto IBM’s Almaden campus as Hartnell’s first research interns. First up on their list of professional research work? Create a metal oxide hardmask that will improve etching on microprocessors.

Luis Castro prepares to use professional research tools in a lab at IBM Research-Almden

Luis Castro prepares to use professional research tools in one of the many labs at IBM Research-Almaden.

“The fast learning. That’s the thing that gets you,” said Castro. “The first week, we were introduced to new tools to use, new materials, new everything.”

Cervantes agreed, and compared the learning atmosphere at IBM to that of Hartnell.

“The most difficult part was to learn how to learn here,” said Cervantes. “There’s a specific way to learn here at IBM, and it’s one of the best ways. You can just go up to somebody and talk to them; but I’m not used to that environment. Back at Hartnell, we’re dealing with professors and set office hours. Here, everyone’s open.”

Cervantes and Castro cited their technical mentor, nanofabrication engineer Dr. Noel Arellano, as a great teacher who played a significant role in their internships.

“We would go to the lab and [Arellano] would go through the rundown of what we’re actually doing with the equipment,” said Cervantes. “Once a week, we would go to his office and talk for 30 minutes. He would draw diagrams and explain ‘This is actually what’s happening at a molecular level.’ And that helped a lot.”

Arellano gave a lot of credit to the students themselves, noting their diligent and smart dispositions. On the second day of Cervantes and Castro’s internship, Arellano visited their office unannounced to check on their progress, and to make sure they were adjusting to their long commute.

“I was expecting to see them yawning and rubbing their eyes. Instead, they were both wide-eyed on their computers, reading about reactive ion etching,” said Arellano. “They already had the skills and the desire to learn about a topic they were barely introduced to the day before, on their own without supervision. They are great, hardworking students.”

In addition to adapting to the learning style in a real research lab, the students also adjusted to the 52-mile commute from Salinas. They carpooled at 7:00 a.m. to arrive by 8:00 a.m. Trips home could take two hours in the Highway 101 gridlock.

At the end of July, Professor Fan and a group of Hartnell students visited Almaden to tour the lab, and learn directly from Cervantes and Castro about their summer research. Standing at the head of a conference room, Cervantes explained how he and Castro used block co-polymers to create a metal oxide that could improve the etching on processing chips by forming a rigid material. Castro, joining in by video, described the various tools the duo used in the research lab, including an atomic layer deposition tool, an atomic force microscope, and two inductively coupled plasma reactive ion etchers.

Frommer, who organized the presentation, noted the important dynamic between Cervantes and Castro, and their classmates in the room.

“These community college students could see role models [in Castro and Cervantes] without having to look as far up as us [researchers],” said Frommer. “They could see among themselves role models doing something they can aspire to. I think that the way that this program propagates itself is remarkable.”

Omar Cervantes works on his summer research project -- improving etching on processing chips -- in a research lab.

Omar Cervantes works on his summer research project — improving etching on processing chips — in a research lab.

Cervantes and Castro also recognized the importance of their presence at IBM.

“We’re the first students from Hartnell who have done something like this at IBM Research,” said Cervantes. “We hopefully made a good impression this year. We want to continue this kind of opportunity for future generations.”

Castro will attend University of California-Santa Cruz this fall. Cervantes plans to transfer to UC-Davis in 2017. They, like many other Hartnell students, enrolled in the community college for economic reasons with the intention to transfer to a four-year university after a couple of years. Their continued education and experience at IBM Research only bolsters their future in a STEM career.

“You go into this big company with a bunch of people that have already achieved so much,” said Cervantes. “You’re still in community college; you don’t think you can make as much of an impact as these people. But you soon realize that you’re actually helping so much, when you hear praise about your project and what you’re doing. You start realizing how much you’re actually doing to advance this type of research.”

About the author: Kelly Shi is a Communications intern at IBM Research-Almaden, where she produces media content about IBM researchers’ projects. In the fall, she will return to Northwestern University to continue working towards her BA in Communication Studies.

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