Next Steps in STEM: Our Academic Journey

Gani Ates and Liam Gameng STEM Jul 15, 2020

Hello, everybody! In this article, we will be addressing our experiences advancing in STEM during the coronavirus crisis. We thought this was appropriate because we believe we can provide insight on matters that are on a lot of people's minds, and whether you are interested in biology or pure math, or are simply “undecided," it’s likely that you’re going to encounter times where you have the opportunity to expand your reach and knowledge outside of school. In particular, taking summer programs and year-round courses offered by respected universities and institutions are popular options. However, due to the quarantine, such options have been modified or shut down temporarily to accommodate the ongoing crisis.

One way that these institutions have adjusted is offering their classes online, making use of programs like Zoom in order to simulate a classroom environment. Hopefully, our experiences can shed some light on how you can take your next steps in STEM, and show you how even in a quarantined world there are still opportunities to follow your passions.

Multi-wavelength imaging of MACS J0717.5+3745, a large galaxy cluster composed of four individual colliding galaxies, credited by NASA, ESA, CXC, NRAO/AUI/NSF, STScI, and R. van Weeren (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) Acknowledgment: NASA, ESA, and J. Lotz (STScI), and the HFF team; CC by 4.0

Gani on the STEM Journey

Hello! I’m Gani Ates, a rising senior at Port Jeff, and I just took an online course called ‘Data-driven Astronomy’ offered by the University of Sydney for free. I’d say I had a lot of fun with the course, where I looked at the various applications of computer and data science to the data-intensive world of Astrophysics. Later, I’ll talk more about my interest in these topics. This course is one of the number of free courses on Coursera.org, a popular online learning platform, so check that out if it interests you.

But first, I want to start out a little less detailed in regards to advancing in STEM. I’m not only writing this to inform you about the cool opportunities that come with deciding on your next move.  Before Liam and I came up with the idea for this article, I realized that there are many ways you can approach learning -- Let me frame it the way I see it. Perhaps during most of your life, you have been questioning whether or not you are truly passionate about something. Sometimes outside pressure can get to you and you feel like you just have to do or feel something, and quick. Let me say that in this case, I would not advise rushing things. When everyone is doing their own thing it can get pretty confusing really quickly as to where to start and what to do. I’d say it’s natural to feel overwhelmed in this instance.

For me, a student who slowly started opening up to STEM clubs such as Science Olympiad in late middle school, as well as Mathletes and Robotics in high school, clubs and extracurriculars really felt like a sampler of everything STEM has to offer. This is what I will stress: joining clubs is a good first step in exploration and discovery of your interests and pursuits, along with taking new classes.

The thing is, joining a club like Science Olympiads is not easy.  For starters, you have the discomfort for joining a new environment in which you will be operating heavily in. There could be a lot of new faces, to add. But most importantly, there is an intimidation factor to seeing all these hard-working kids who are so absorbed in their work. In fact, I ended up not being shown the ropes or understanding the activities until dipping head-first, forcing me to forget all my fears, and asking questions to everyone and anyone. Slowly and surely, I get the hang of things. Next thing I know, I’m participating in the regional competition, by studying to take tests for events like “Potions and Poisons” (cool organic chemistry), and “Astronomy” (with physics and a lot of identification). It’s also cool because since our teams have been giving their best, we’ve (including myself and Liam, who is also in the club) achieved top medals and advanced to state competitions. To provide a glimpse into the experience: our school’s competitors take a long bus ride early in the morning to travel to Syracuse, which is where the competition is usually held, and stay at a hotel (which can be fun) before fighting in the name of science the next day. Sometimes I find myself making friends with other school’s players, too. So at first, everything's scary. But then you may notice, perhaps later on like I am, that there was one first step you took which changed everything.

Exploring my interests manifested in many ways that I believe is guiding me in the right direction (which is different for everybody, of course). One way I was able to move forward was my intermittent passion in physics. I’d say intermittent because sometimes, I would gain a ton of momentum in my interests, or feel like I can see myself 10 years in the future advancing to high and intriguing levels, but then promptly lose that grand feeling. I feel at my best when I’m studying Astronomy in Science Olympiad, or taking an Astrophysics course at UChicago Summer Session, but then I would return back home and realize that I merely got just a glimpse of what is to come, and that it would only become harder. I would lose the momentum but quickly pick up the pace with online research and finding more opportunities: I realized that if I am going to be majoring in Physics, I will need a strong background in pure math. That is why I am choosing to take Multivariable Calculus online at SBU just like Liam did. I also like math, so I’m motivated to eventually reach Linear Algebra and perhaps even move on to harder math involving ‘tensors’ used in Einstein’s general relativity theorem—now that would be a journey I think I would enjoy. But that's far away from now, being at least at a college graduate level. However, it’s always good to analyze your horizons and be open to many different things.

Finding things to do and courses to take on your own also isn’t easy, so you will need to consult with others such as a guidance counselor and do your own research, mostly online. Starting off with a basic idea of what you want to learn and are excited about is good, then you can move on to finding where such an experience is offered. Or, it is possible to get recommendations based on topics you find interesting in the STEM world. Something many students, including myself, across the nation have started doing is joining interactive servers with tens of thousands of people focusing on relevant topics on a social platform called Discord. For example, the “Physics” Discord server provides exciting things to talk about (and solve!), and the “AP Students” Discord server is a place to discuss content in AP classes or for general purpose academics. There are very genuine people in these servers who are willing to talk about anything and share their insight on it with you, so if you ever have questions about learning that we may not have answered, then the AP server might be a good resource. Keep in mind that this is just something to consider and it may not be suited for everybody. But as always, I encourage readers and STEM students in general to explore ways to scratch that itch for learning.

One Step at a Time: Liam on his STEM Path

Greetings STEM enthusiasts! I am Liam Gameng, a rising senior at Port Jefferson High School. I have always been passionate about STEM, always looking for another class, club, or opportunity to pursue my interests in the great world of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I take all of the mathematics and science classes I can while participating in clubs such as Mathletes, Science Olympiads, and Robotics. I have a similar perspective on STEM to Gani, I don’t have a specific topic that I know I am committed to, so I use clubs and classes in order to explore different areas of STEM to find the right fit for me. However, during the summer, I don’t have the option to attend these high school classes and clubs. So, the summer between my junior and senior year, I searched for a research internship to take my next step in my STEM journey...but quarantine completely changed my plans. Universities and research institutions shut down in order to promote safety, and opportunities to pursue STEM faded away. I felt hopeless. I simply didn’t know what I could do to get the most out of these unfortunate circumstances.

As summer approached, I kept searching for a productive activity to participate in, and ended up finding college level online summer courses. I already knew about schools hosting courses on their campuses during previous summers and decided that I should try taking an online course. I chose to take Calculus III with applications at Stony Brook University (SBU) from May 25th to July 2nd. This class was significantly more advanced than any of my previous math courses, because it was my first experience with multivariable calculus. I needed to be introduced to linear algebra and vectors, and I had to apply the calculus concepts I had just learned, but this time in three dimensions. In AP Calc BC it was easy to visualize concepts and operations that were being performed, and now it would be much more difficult to visualize the calculus combined with the points, planes, and shapes found in a three dimensional space.

This was my choice because I know that I have a keen interest in mathematics and that math is a gateway to all things STEM; also, I was taking AP Calc BC at the time I chose the class, making Calc III the next logical step according to SBU’s curriculum. This was somewhat of an experiment for me, since I have never taken a true college course nor have I ever taken an online course, except for the occasional Google meets during the school year. The class spanned over six weeks, with three, three-hour lectures a week (Monday, Wednesday, Thursday), except for on the days of the midterm and the final. Homework problem sets were due every week, except for the weeks of the midterm and the final, given on June 11th and July 2nd respectively. The class had a textbook assigned to it, and it provided supplementary material and homework assignments which helped me better understand the topics being covered.

Calculus III was my first multivariable calculus class, and I have heard that many people begin to struggle in math once they begin to learn multivariable calculus. I knew that I was proficient in math, and was willing to take a risk and see how I would do in this high level mathematics class. The lectures were given via Zoom; the teacher used a notepad on an iPad in order to display notes, and the chat feature of Zoom allowed for some level of communication between the students and the teacher. The notes were posted and the lectures were recorded, so if for some reason you couldn’t make it to the live lecture, you could download the notes and watch the lecture so that you did not miss any material. The teacher also had office hours on Tuesdays, allowing for more personal help in the class. I believe that this class would have been better if it had been in an actual classroom, as it is easier to focus and makes the course feel more “real” if you are actually in a classroom environment. However, I think that the class was very beneficial and helped me better understand my perspective on STEM.

Personally, I found the material intriguing and intuitive, and I began to build a better understanding of the applications of math in the real world. Through this experience I was able to learn more about math but also about myself, specifically in the realm of STEM. I learned that I continue to understand and enjoy math at a higher level than what is found in a high school classroom, and therefore decided to continue taking online courses at SBU, planning to take Calc IV with applications and a computer science class during the next summer section. Although taking online courses may not be as beneficial as taking courses in a college classroom, it is still productive and helped me with moving forward in STEM.

In order for you to better understand and be more successful in STEM, you have to take steps to not only learn equations and experiments, but also to learn about yourself and how you fit into the vast world of STEM. Whether you are reading an interesting article about space, talking about physics in a Discord server, taking an online mathematics class, or any other socially distant activity, you can continue to follow your passions regardless of the restrictions levied upon us. It is your decision to make your own path that will help you find your way in the world, and there are plenty of people that can help you find your way. Talk to your teachers, mentors, and peers so that you can find out how to open up new options for you to pursue. Browse the internet to find something interesting to learn about. The opportunities are endless, you just need to be looking for them. Although I may not know what major or career I will pursue, or even what my favorite letter in STEM is, I trust that if I pursue opportunities one step at a time, I will find my place in the broad fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes our article! We had been shooting for a while now to share our experiences with others and this has been the perfect opportunity here at the Current. We hope you found value or insight through our thoughts or perhaps even came up with a good question to ask. If so, send us an email (see below)!

On another note, we hope you and your families and friends have been staying safe and coping during the pandemic. Given the fact that almost all learning has now shifted to the online world, we see dramatic changes in our student lives ranging from calling friends from the safety of our homes to attending classes from behind our distant computer screens. Although these are hard times, together we can get through it.

If you would like to ask us about anything, please email Gani Ates at [email protected] or Liam Gameng at [email protected]!


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