Wright Scholar program a success despite COVID-19 pandemic

A small group of students do modeling and simulation project work at the GRILL (Gaming Research Integration for Learning Lab). (Courtesy photo)
A small group of students do modeling and simulation project work at the GRILL (Gaming Research Integration for Learning Lab). (Courtesy photo)

The Wright Scholar Research Assistant Program, now in its 19th year, successfully propelled 50 new student interns plus eight returning scholars through a summer of research opportunities and learning experiences, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ironically, this class of Wright scholars was the largest since the program began in 2001, and this was the first-ever virtual program undertaking. This year’s group of Wright scholars included six out-of-state students and featured the most diverse class ever with students of various ethnic backgrounds.

The Wright Scholar program affords selected high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to work with mentors from the Air Force Research Laboratory and Air Force Institute of Technology on a research project for nine weeks in the summer. Applicants to the program are competitively selected based upon GPA, advanced courses taken, demonstrated leadership, interest and participation in science/engineering platforms, and a written essay. The program truly brings a wealth of information to selected students regarding future careers in engineering/science fields, in addition to real-world experience in a STEM field.

Through all the COVID-19 constraints, AFRL and AFIT mentors devised unique and creative ways to engage their student interns this summer, while providing them with meaningful research and project work, though the experience was mostly virtual. On the flip side, students enthusiastically embarked on their project work and provided several thousand staff-hours of support to benefit the in-house researchers.

One first-time mentor from the 711th Human Performance Wing said, “I was hesitant to take on a student knowing our situation on base with COVID-19 is challenging to say the least, but I’m really glad that I did. My student has been fantastic. He has had the opportunity to support my team with literature review from home, finding nearly 20 top-tier publications that were right on topic and in support of our work.”

Another mentor from AFIT stated, “These are great students, making it fun to work with them. I am probably going to publish papers with two of them this year.”

Though the program was delayed and shortened to six weeks due to COVID-19 restrictions, students still benefitted from their experiences and were able to contribute significantly to their mentors' research, mostly through virtual project work. They were provided access to AFRL’s D’Azzo Research Library for materials to facilitate their on-line research.

Students worked on a variety of projects that included, but were not limited to: learning new or enhancing computer programming skills in Python, Blender and Unreal Engine; researching different material analysis techniques and machines; expanding linear algebra knowledge; using MATLAB for data visualization and analysis; learning to read, interpret, and analyze scientific papers; understanding application of software programs for the design of siRNAs; obtaining experience with CAD modeling and simulations; gaining skill in robotics with robotics libraries, simulators, and code management; using various research programs to search through research papers, articles, and patents; using a software called Jet Designer to geometrically model an aircraft; and learning how to operate Tobii Eye Tracking Glasses and edit eye tracking videos.

Wright scholars were also exposed to several STEM career disciplines through virtual weekly luncheon lectures provided by scientists and engineers who are experts in their fields, virtual talks with Wright State University’s School of Engineering and Boonshoft School of Medicine, a virtual electrical engineering workshop provided by an energetic Ohio State University professor, on-line summer camp sessions provided by the University of Dayton’s School of Engineering, a virtual propulsion workshop provided by an Aerospace Systems Directorate engineer, and a virtual tour of the National Museum of the USAF.

Students enjoyed only one live event at Carillon Historical Park to learn about the Wright brothers' engineering feats and Dayton history. They wore masks and social distanced in small groups with their tour guides.

At the culmination of the program, Wright Scholars gave an outbriefing on their project work and experiences, and they also completed a program evaluation. The consensus on the virtual program this year was overwhelmingly positive with comments like, “This has been the best way I’ve found to get real-world experience in a STEM field;” “It has been a wonderful experience that has given me a strong foundation for research and the beginning of my career;” and “I liked the sense of accomplishment from the project I was able to conduct in just six weeks and the results obtained, as well as learning about the applications of my research!”

Another student commented, “I loved being able to collaborate with scientists and engineers on projects I am passionate about. Such experiences allowed me to foster lasting relationships and enhance my understanding of STEM topics. I gained exposure to cutting-edge technology and learned a lot about my future career field.”

Although retention of these stellar students in AFRL following college graduation is a key goal of the program, knowing that they will make lasting contributions in science and engineering wherever they go is a significant and worthwhile take-away of the Wright Scholar program.

For more information on the Wright Scholar program, visit http://www.wpafb.af.mil/Welcome/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/985968/wright-scholar-research-assistant-program or contact Debbie Miller at debra.miller.4.ctr@us.af.mil.