Gifted Valley high school students conduct real-world research at ASU

Adriana Baniecki is a home-schooled high school senior from Chandler, Arizona, with a passion for physics. She likes understanding how the world around her works.

When she was in ninth grade, her professors at community college presented physics as investigating the real world.

“We would drop balls off of the second story of the building, and measure and use all these lab analysis tools and stuff to kind of just show how the math underlies the real world,” she said.

Now Baniecki is enrolled in a little-known but longstanding program at Arizona State University where the brightest high schoolers in the Valley conduct real research at the university. She’s working with a physics professor to analyze theoretical condensed-matter physics.

No one makes papier-mache volcanoes in SCENE.

The SCience and ENgineering Experience (SCENE) program has been around for more than a decade, providing research experiences to high school sophomores, juniors and seniors. Students work in labs under the guidance of ASU professors and students to answer their own original research questions and compete in regional and national competitions.

“I'd actually applied for it back in ninth grade,” Baniecki said. “Whenever I first got started, my mom and I kind of looked through Facebook and stuff just to find opportunities for high schoolers to kind of get into the research fields, cause it's something I'm interested in.”

Students who are seriously considering a career in science or engineering are strongly encouraged to apply to the program. SCENE is offered in a variety of disciplines, including biodesign, engineering, life sciences, molecular sciences, physics and more. Applications are accepted from June 1 through July 31.

“You get the best students in the Valley,” said program director Nate Newman, the Lamonte H. Lawrence Professor in Solid State Science and a faculty member in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy. “And as much as we'd like to say that they all go to ASU, they go to many other places, and the people that go to Stanford and Berkeley and MIT can often be amazing."

Newman explained how program mentors get high school students up to speed and working on research. First he explains what areas they work in. The next session he describes what questions in the areas of interest need to be answered.

Then he gives them reading materials.

“You choose a question you have to be interested in answering,” Newman said. “And I involve my grad students in those discussions too. ... We give them more or less a project that a graduate student — even a master's or even a PhD might — might take.”

They choose it and they own it. It’s their project. They’re treated like graduate students. If they need to learn how to use specific equipment or software, they’re taught how to do it, first in a session of watching someone else, then on their own with heavy supervision.

“They work with Nobel laureates,” Newman said. “You know, Frank Wilcek is one of the faculty that I work closely with. So some of the SCENE students overlap with that. It's really a lot of fun, and it's been amazingly productive and they bring skills and abilities that you don't always get in a grad student.”

Baniecki is studying very thin materials for superconductivity and magnetism principles to understand how they behave.

How does it feel to be doing real research instead of a textbook exercise?

“It's very different,” she said. “There's a lot of new stuff. It's a different mindset as opposed to just memorizing different facts and learning things that are already discovered versus trying new things. ... I'm learning programming tools and how to just operate my computer, but then also learning the new science behind it.”

Baniecki is being mentored by Antia Sanchez Botana, assistant professor of physics.

“It's just great to work with them, particularly in the context of what I do,” Botana said. “Being able to explain to people who are at different levels as well, it's a great exercise because particularly for physics, most of the people tend to think it’s the most complex and it should be very simple.”

When students start, Botana always asks them whether they want to do something more beaten path or whether they actually want to do the real thing.

“As of now, I haven't had a single one say, 'I want to do something that somebody else has already done,'” she said. “And I think that's the great thing about these. She's (Baniecki) doing the types of calculations that we do for our research on a regular basis.”

It can be award-winning work. In 2021, Gilbert, Arizona, student Bailey Tischer won first place at the Arizona Science and Engineering Fair for the measurement of cell permeability as a function of electrical and chemical perturbations. She also won a $28,000 scholarship to ASU and was lauded as Future Innovator of the Year by the Governor's Celebration of Innovation/Arizona Technology Council in August 2021.

Tischer’s case is not unusual for SCENE students. Newman has a four-page list of award winners like her.

“A really big thank-you to everyone who puts (the program) on because I've been looking for different programs and this is the first one I've come across that lets you really delve right into things that you can't find as a high school student,” Baniecki said.

For more information visit eoss.asu.edu/access/scene, email scene@asu.edu or call 480-965-6966.

Top image: Assistant Professor Antia Sanchez Botana (left) answers a few questions about how electrons in materials behave for Adriana Baniecki, a home-schooled high school senior, on Oct. 11. Baniecki is taking part in the SCience and ENgineering Experience (SCENE) program that provides cutting-edge science research experience to high school sophomores, juniors and seniors. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Scott Seckel
scott.seckel@asu.edu