Guided by mentors, students explore STEM careers and home in on college majors.

Every summer, hundreds of students come to Lincoln Laboratory to gain hands-on research experience. Historically, the Laboratory’s summer research program has primarily served undergraduate and graduate students, with their internships complementing their fields of study. A few local high school students have participated in this program over the years through AFCEA International, a nonprofit providing educational and networking opportunities. But this summer, as the Laboratory re-opened its doors for the first time in years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the program was officially expanded to offer on-site internships for local high schoolers.

“The internships provide students with an opportunity to explore STEM careers while they're still in high school, before they commit to an area of study in college,” says Gary Hackett, who manages the Laboratory’s campus recruiting program, summer research program, and now the new high school internship program, in collaboration with human resources administrator Cheryl Bartolone and K–12 STEM outreach coordinator Chiamaka Agabsi-Porter and K–12 STEM outreach administrator Daphne-Ann Vessiropoulos. “This opportunity goes beyond engaging in hands-on research to include mentoring on educational and career paths, developing interpersonal skills in a professional workplace environment, and networking with staff across the Laboratory. Following their experience, hopefully students will consider the Laboratory as a place for future employment.”

Agbasi-Porter and Vessiropoulos helped spread the word about the new opportunity to local-area high schools whom they had already established partnerships with through two STEM programs they lead: Lincoln Laboratory Radar Introduction for Student Engineers (LLRISE) and Lincoln Laboratory Cipher (LLCipher). The initial application round was highly competitive; more than 100 high schoolers applied. Ultimately, Laboratory staff selected four interns for the inaugural six-week program, which ran from July 6 to August 12. To align the internships with student interests, staff accordingly placed the interns in Laboratory research groups.

Inaugural interns

"During the interview process, I explained my interest in helping the environment," says Chloe Kindangen, a rising senior at Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. "I grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the skies would always be really dark because of the factories. All the rivers are quite polluted, and it's heartbreaking to see because a lot of people depend on those waters for bathing and cooking. With the privilege of my education, I want to give back to my community."

Chloe Kindangen with a drone.
Chloe Kindangen assessed the environmental impact of operating drones, like the one seen above, on wildlife.

This summer, Kindangen interned in the Laboratory's Advanced Sensor Systems and Test Beds Group, which develops radar, optical systems, and airborne surveillance platforms. Aggregating data from online sources, she assessed the environmental impacts of drones operating at the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Makaha Ridge in Hawaii. In particular, she researched the impacts on wildlife and considered how to mitigate risks posed by stimuli such as light and noise. Possible mitigations include changing the color of lights the drone uses and avoiding testing during critical times, like bird nesting season, as fledglings are more sensitive to light.

From her experience, Kindangen realized she enjoys conducting this kind of research as opposed to hands-on lab-based projects. She remains interested in continuing on the environmental path, with plans to register for her school's environmental science class in the upcoming school year. Kindangen also took advantage of other opportunities at the Laboratory, including its introduction to radar course, which sparked her interest in deriving math equations that represent real-world situations.  

"Coming out of this experience, I know I definitely want to do something STEM related that involves reading through reports, understanding what they mean, and seeing where and how I can fill in the gaps," says Kindangen. "In talking to some college interns on site, I realized I had this misconception that as a senior I should know exactly what major I want to declare and how it translates to a professional field. I now plan to attend a college with a core curriculum so I can expose myself to different fields and make sure I enjoy my major."

Kindangen's mentor, Robert Natividad, sees the benefit of offering internships at this educational stage: "High school is an ideal time for students to have informative experiences that help them refine their understanding of where they would like to go in the future."

Even for students who have already been exposed to a field of interest through classes or extracurricular activities, the internships enable them to experience the field in a professional workplace setting.

"I've been wanting to get more into electrical engineering," says Mya Gordon, a rising senior at Lexington High School in Lexington, Massachusetts. "I've taken one robotics class, participate in a robotics club outside of school, and do programming independently. The Laboratory's internship program allowed me to apply these things to real projects and expose myself to different subfields and applications of electrical engineering."

This summer, Gordon interned in the Tactical Networks Group, where researchers develop communication systems capable of effectively operating in congested and contested environments. She programmed a receiver for a wireless communications-based Battleship-like game, which the group will demonstrate at the Laboratory's Open House event in September. Her two mentors, YaYa Brown and Nicholas Smith, provided a general overview of what she needed to do, but it was up to Gordon to structure and write the code. As Gordon explains, the game is a version of Battleship, but instead of ships existing at a certain location on a grid, their location is translated into a particular frequency and time. If an opponent sends a signal at that same frequency and time, they'll jam any messages coming from the ship.

Mya Gordon at a computer, programming a battleship receiver.
Mya Gordon programs a battleship receiver using a software development toolkit for implementing software-defined radios, which use software instead of conventional hardware to perform radio signal processing functions.

"I've learned a lot about software-defined radios and object-oriented programming," says Gordon. "My experience this summer solidified my desire to go to a college that offers internships and co-ops and pursue a STEM degree involving both hardware and software elements."

The internship similarly pointed Ryan Wempen, a rising junior at King School in Stamford, Connecticut, toward a college degree path. Mentored by Robert Palladino and Elisheva Shuter, Wempen interned in the Interceptor and Sensor Technology Group, which develops technologies that enable air and missile defense systems to identify, track, and intercept potential threats.

"The internship opened my eyes to aerospace engineering," says Wempen, who for his project simulated the physics of hypersonic vehicle flight. Able to travel five times faster than the speed of sound, hypersonic vehicles could transform space exploration, military defense, and commercial air travel. But, as Palladino explains, vehicles traveling at hypersonic speeds experience extreme heat, making their design an engineering challenge.

With a grandfather who worked on NASA's Apollo mission, Wempen has long been drawn to aerospace. He applied to the internship through his school's engineering program, in which students pursue research opportunities and compete in science fairs.

His interest in hypersonics took off through a wind tunnel project for a science fair. During his internship, he toured the Laboratory's shock tube, a type of wind tunnel for exciting gases to the temperature and pressure conditions relevant to hypersonic flight.

Ryan Wempen with the Standard Missile on display in Lincoln Laboratory's atrium.
Ryan Wempen, pictured with the Standard Missile on display in the Laboratory's atrium, simulated hypersonic vehicle flight.

"In researching my science fair project, I learned a lot about physics and math laws," says Wempen, who will continue receiving mentorship during the school year and come back to the Laboratory next summer to continue his research. "As an intern, I was able to apply these theories to real-world scenarios relevant to an expanding field with lots of unanswered science questions. My mentors were quick to jump in when I didn't have the technical knowledge about specific subjects such as advanced calculus. The Lab moves at a fast pace, even for interns, and it was exciting to see how quickly me and the other interns were able to learn and develop our projects."

Veronica Cheng, a rising senior at Westford Academy, also felt proud about what she accomplished in a short amount of time. She came into her internship in the Advanced Concepts and Technologies Group — whose expertise is developing radar, electronic warfare, and system-of-systems technologies for air and missile defense — with limited knowledge of radars and not having taken any calculus courses. Mentor Kristan Tuttle helped bring her up to speed, and, on her own, Cheng read technical documentation on radars and user manuals for assembling evaluation boards with the firmware necessary for testing a thumb-size car radar. Armed with this knowledge, Cheng performed calculations needed to test the range of this radar. A corner reflector — a structure made of perpendicular, intersecting flat surfaces — served as the test target.

"I moved the corner reflector away from the radar at different distances to see when and where it would show up," explains Cheng. "I had to figure out the dimensions of the reflector that would be compatible with the radar and interpret my results from the radar graphs I generated. I really like math and figuring out how things work based on calculations."

Veronica Cheng disassembles a 16-channel transmit chassis.
Veronica Cheng disassembles a 16-channel transmit chassis that was used in an experimental aircraft flight, learning about the different hardware components and what goes into designing and building a system.

For Cheng, the internship confirmed electrical engineering is the major she intends to pursue in college. Like Gordon, she had some exposure to the field through her participation on a robotics team, but she didn't know what it would entail in the real world.

Beyond the technical knowledge they acquired, the high schoolers developed a new set of social skills, particularly in networking with other interns and staff and presenting their research. Like the college summer research interns, the high schoolers were invited to several events, including presentations from the Laboratory’s research divisions; a National Intern Day celebration; the I3C (for Intern Innovative Idea Challenge) shark tank, where teams of summer research students at the college level present their ideas to a judging panel of Laboratory leadership; and an end-of-summer breakfast to engage with fellow interns. Their mentors also took them on tours of Laboratory facilities and hosted lunch get-togethers with other group staff. 

Mentor reflections

Students weren't the only ones who benefitted from the experience. The mentors note how mentoring enabled them to enhance their communication skills, reignite their passion for their respective field, and consider problems from new perspectives.

"It's been rewarding to learn how to define a problem for someone in a way that makes sense for them," says Brown.

"Serving as mentors challenged us to make topics we work on, which almost always require a college education, accessible to a high schooler," says Palladino.

"Seeing our work through an intern's eyes is a good reminder of how exciting and interesting it is," adds Shuter. "It's cool to hear ideas totally out of the box and be asked questions that get us thinking, too."

Though the internships have concluded, they are only the beginning of what the Laboratory hopes will be long-term interaction and engagement. "We aim to maintain relationships with the students over time, with groups encouraged to keep in touch with their mentees," says Hackett. In future years, the goal is to expand the program, recruiting more mentors across all of the Laboratory's R&D areas to serve more students.

For information about the summer 2023 program, contact Gary Hackett.

Inquiries: contact Ariana Tantillo.