Pivoting in Real time

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

UC Berkeley students lead high school “scholars” in virtual course on COVID-19

In May of 2020, with Summer fast approaching, and COVID-19 on the rise, SMASH organizers made the decisive call: their flagship STEM summer academy for high school students from underserved backgrounds would make a drastic pivot, from residential to “virtual”. A resourceful team of Berkeley students turned crisis into opportunity, with an innovative course on the pandemic for SMASH Academy scholars.


A brief look back

In 2004, SMASH Academy launched an intensive five-week residential STEM enrichment program at Berkeley, which annually engages high-achieving, first-generation, low-income, high school students of color from backgrounds not traditionally represented in STEM. From the program’s start, the Particle Cosmology Group, led by Prof. Bernard Sadoulet in the UC Berkeley Department of Physics, has partnered yearly with Berkeley SMASH (SMASH.org) to host a course for students enrolled in SMASH (“scholars”).

In 2007, the Sadoulet group introduced an innovative course called Topics in Current Science Research (TCSR). In this model, graduate students from various Berkeley departments guide SMASH scholars through a lab-based project. TCSR was the first of its kind at SMASH Academy. At its core, TCSR enables high school students to learn about STEM research first-hand from graduate students; the research projects are based in the graduate student's area of expertise, meaning the projects change every year.

From year to year, SMASH organizers and scholars have expressed excitement and appreciation for the rare opportunity to directly experience authentic scientific research.

And then there was a pandemic…

Bringing Summer 2020 residential programs to a halt. A momentous shift occurred. SMASH reinvented the Academy to engage their scholars in an intensive three-week Virtual Learning Program. For TCSR at Berkeley, the shift proved a good fit.

With expanded capacity in the virtual environment, TCSR engaged 68 SMASH Berkeley students and an additional 10 scholars from SMASH cohorts across the country. All sessions included breakout activities that allowed small group discussions, training in data analysis, and understanding of modern research methods. To focus on current events, the course took a new central theme: How are researchers responding to COVID-19?


Inside the virtual classroom

Each interactive session focused on a different aspect of the pandemic, addressing both scientific and societal impact issues. A team of Berkeley graduate and undergraduate students led the sessions, all expressing enthusiasm to participate in the course again.

  • How data analysts predict the likelihood of a second wave
    Sofia Arevalo (PhD Candidate; Mechanical Engineering) 
    Trevor Grand Pre (PhD Candidate; Physics)
  • How demography reveals COVID-19’s disproportionate effect on minority populations
    Vinson Fan (PhD student; Molecular & Cell Biology)
    Payal Hathi (PhD student; Demography)
  • How engineers test sewage waste to identify infected rural communities
    Adrian Hinkle (PhD student; Environmental Engineering)
    Mira Chaplin (BS 2020; Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • How COVID-19 impacts biology of cells
    Julia Borden (PhD student; Molecular & Cell Biology)
    Fahima Mayer (PhD 2019; Endocrinology)
    Nasima Mayer (PhD student; Endocrinology)
  • How to maintain mental health during the COVID-19 crisis
    Nicole Carvajal (M.D./M.S. Candidate; Medical program)
  • How UC Berkeley design students are addressing the PPE shortage
    Brian Salazar (PhD Candidate; Mechanical Engineering)
    Hams Laeeq (BS; Mechanical Engineering)


Scholars speak up! 

We’re pleased to share comments from three scholars who attended the course:

“I loved the How Current Science Research is Responding to COVID-19 course. It achieved being engaging and hands-on while in a virtual setting.”

“My experience with How Current Science Research Is Responding to COVID-19 gave me hope and lots of insight. I was amazed by the tremendous amount of work that is going on and appreciated how the presentations were as engaging as possible…”

“Taking the virtual COVID-19 summer course provided me with knowledge that is not being normally taught, and it was really exciting to see all of these different scientists using what they know in the real world. The hands-on activities were also very fun!”

The TCSR course is coordinated by Rachel Winheld, Trevor Grand Pre, and Brian Salazar. They are excited to present the course In July 2021, adapting content in accordance with events of the past year. They hope that this course model might be applied at universities across the globe. 


Berkeley students, apply now for SMASH-TCSR 2021!

Here’s an opportunity to have a fulfilling teaching experience this summer, as an instructor in the 2021 SMASH Academy course, “How scientists are responding to COVID-19.” 

Session dates are still awaiting final confirmation, but are likely to be:
July 8, 13, 15, 20, 22, and 27 from 2-3PM

Instructors will receive an $800 stipend for their participation. Graduate students and upper-division undergrads are welcome to apply.

If you are interested in being considered for an instructor position this summer, please submit this form.


Topics in Current Science Research has been supported since 2004 by Bernard Sadoulet, Professor of the Graduate School, Department of Physics, at UC Berkeley, with funding from the National Science Foundation. In 2007, TCSR was developed and initially coordinated by Dr. Miguel Daal, during his tenure as a Berkeley graduate student in Prof. Sadoulet’s Particle Cosmology Research Group. Dr. Daal is currently a postdoctoral scholar at UC Santa Barbara.