High schoolers with a heart for STEM intern at GCU
Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Matt Nykamp
GCU News Bureau
Natasha Beloshapka’s composition notebook isn’t sprawled with haikus, poetry in iambic pentameter, the day’s journal entry or essays on the symbolism of “Wuthering Heights.”
Instead, she has sketched the female pelvis, in detailed pen and ink, with each part labeled. On the adjacent page: line upon line of anatomical notes.
But her brain is spilling with more than just the information she has gleaned from her notes. She is culling that information, too, through the hands-on experiences she’s getting in Grand Canyon University’s Cadaver Dissection Lab, on the first floor of the Technology Building.
“I’m dissecting the female pelvis right now,” said Beloshapka.
The Paradise Valley High School senior — and a student in the school’s rigorous CREST Program, which focuses on engineering, computer science and bioscience — is one of more than a dozen students embedded in the University’s labs as part of GCU’s inaugural High School STEM Internship Program.
During the intensive summer program, students spend four weeks or eight weeks, depending on their chosen track, working alongside GCU’s Research and Design Program students and the University’s STEM faculty.
“It’s a commitment,” K12 STEM Outreach Director Cori Araza said of the internship program.
The University curated the internships to fill a need, she said. High school teachers told her department, K12 Educational Development, that they wanted more STEM opportunities, specifically internships, for their high-level STEM students.
GCU obliged, placing students in Michael Bodeen’s Anatomy and Dissection Group; Dr. Zach Zeigler’s POWER Lab, which contributes to research in health, nutrition and obesity; the Biomedical Device Design and Prototyping Lab, under the helm of Dr. Jeff La Belle; and the Software Development Lab, overseen by Robert Loy and James Sparks.
The interns practically live in the labs, peering through microscopes, plugging away at coding, dissecting cadavers and the like for eight hours a day Mondays to Thursdays. They also spend time with the Honors College on Fridays to develop their professional skills outside of the lab — everything from resume writing to refining their own personal brand.
And just like GCU students, they sign ethics contracts.
“It’s high level,” Araza said. “The cadaver students say they’re working harder in the summer than they ever worked in school, and Professor Bodeen is proud of that.”
“It is very, very challenging,” Beloshapka said. “At the beginning, we had a bunch of stuff thrown at us.”
For the first two weeks of her internship, she rattled off what she had to learn: the bones, upper extremities, lower extremities, forearms and brachial plexus.
That was before moving on to work on personal projects, which for her is learning the anatomy of the female pelvis.
Beloshapka wants to become a trauma nurse and research the effects of rape in the military.
“It is very overwhelming,” said fellow Anatomy and Dissection Group intern Samantha Vega, a senior at Phoenix’s North Pointe Prep. After spending all day in the lab, she often studies at home until 10 or 11 p.m. to prepare for the next day. “They throw us in, sink or swim. It takes a lot out of you mentally.”
Bodeen, lead instructor for human dissection, likes to pair the high school students he mentors with his Mastering Anatomy Program students. And once the high school interns know the material well enough, they then teach other students who aren’t as far along.
It’s a lot of material, and the program isn’t easy.
“If they bring enough passion,” Bodeen said of the high school students in his lab, “boy, that’s a lot to play with.”
Paradise Valley High School senior Deepak Chandrasekar is embracing his passion for computers in a software development internship. He’s spending his summer developing materials for instructors who are teaching Java. He’s also creating a card game framework for GCU students who will build onto that framework for competitions.
When he heard the internship involved developing instructional materials, he knew it was right up his alley: “I like mentoring and teaching the concepts of coding, so the instructional material part was interesting to me.”
Paige Petrine, a Paradise Valley High School senior, just finished her research for the day in the La Belle Lab, a secure wing of the Engineering Building accessible only by code.
It’s where La Belle, a Biomedical Engineering Professor who has upped the research game in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology since his arrival in 2019, innovates, designs and prototypes point-of-care medical device technologies.
The lab has been working on developing pressure sensors for a glove designed for amputees. The sensors will help those amputees grip items without breaking them.
Petrine spent her Tuesday morning testing different coverings for those sensors, such as cotton balls and makeup sponges.
Being entrusted in a secure lab such as La Belle Lab, Petrine said, is an honor: “It’s really cool – a lab of college students treat us like adults.”
Like Beloshapka, she has filled her notebook with all she did that day, detailing the procedures she used: 1. Cut cotton balls to size; 2. Cut foam pad to size; 3. Weigh both …
Spending a summer in the lab has been a dream for her.
“I have always wanted to do this kind of work,” she said.
Every Friday, Petrine leaves the lab for a bit with her fellow interns to spend time with the Honors College, which wants to help the high schoolers develop professionally outside the lab.
Cathleen Daly, Academic & Career Excellence Program Manager, spent Friday talking to students about personal branding. She spoke about her blog, Discovering Daly, and how it reflects the best version of herself.
In developing their own personal brand, she asked students to identify three words that really reflect who they are. Her three words? “Creativity, authenticity and consistency.”
“If you have a strong personal brand, it creates options for you,” Daly told the interns.
Dennis Williams, the Honors College’s Director of Operations, sees the professional development component of the High School STEM Internship Program as doing the same thing: creating options for the students through strong branding, strong resumes, an impressive presence on LinkedIn and the like to show potential employers.
The college’s leaders want to teach them more than how to meet expectations, Williams said. They want to teach them how to flourish as a professional.
“Any high school student that’s giving up several weeks of their summer, especially after COVID, when they could be out doing anything, we knew that these students were going to come in really excited to be a part of this,” he said. “We knew they were going to be engaged as they are investing into their future and professional development.”
The College of Science, Engineering and Technology faculty also wants to help the students flourish, pushing them to excel along the way.
“I definitely have learned a lot,” said Ira Puranik, a senior at Paradise Valley High who found herself teaching the different parts of the skull to other interns in the Cadaver Dissection Lab last week after mastering the material. “This will make college much easier.”
For Petrine, she has discovered that research falls right in her wheelhouse. She smiled and said, “The lab is my happy place.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or 602-639-7901.
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