Ashinaga USA Scholar Martin

My First Summer in the US

Finding your groove in a different environment and country can oftentimes be difficult. In light of COVID, my transition to Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) was made worse because I started school in the spring. Despite the slow start to my life in the US, this past summer is one I looked back at with a smile. Having been here for only a few months, time seemed to have flown by so fast and I was faced with a ravaging summer to make productive. There were limited opportunities for internships I could have taken due to my lack of academic breadth. However, this did not deter my ambitions as I made use of the Ashinaga Connect network to find possible internships in Africa. Further, through my enthusiasm and willingness to seek support — enshrined in me by the AAI camps— I found outstanding research and internship opportunities available at WPI for the summer. 

At the end of the semester, there was a research opportunity/grant published at WPI to work with a Chemical Engineering professor. This position required two students to aid designing a STEM curriculum for middle school students in Worcester and was fully funded by the Early Research Experience in E-term (EREE) program. Seeing this as an opportunity to diversify my knowledge and research capacity, I applied for the position and was awarded the grant.  

EREE was an intense ten-week program that lasted the entire summer. Under the program, I had an opportunity to network with professionals in varying disciplines at WPI and work, for the first time, in a robust chemical engineering lab. Stepping in the lab for the first time was jaw dropping. There was massive equipment and work stations that caught my eye. However, my project was not heavily linked to equipment but creating classroom based activities that would help engage students from minority communities in STEM. Looking at the present global conditions, my research partners and I decided to use COVID-19 as a focal point in our research by creating a story on how aerosols are created and eventually spread in an environment. To do this, we created a “smoking mannequin” model that helped simulate how a cough is spread across a room.  

As a way to better engage with the project, I was tasked to include fractals into the research. Because the idea of fractals was new to me, I tried to identify a way to link them to my African background and found a deeper origin on one TED talk. It helped me understand how Mathematics was invented in Africa using fractals and I saw the unlimited ways I could teach students about COVID using fractals. I found software resources and designed activities based on the games I played in my childhood that mimicked mathematical models. A key lesson I took away from this research was how diverse yet narrow the US education system is. This project further enabled me to draw comparisons between my country’s middle school education system and that of the US.  

After designing the curriculum, we presented our findings to our research advisors and they approved our work. We later held a teacher conference at over ten schools to demonstrate our activities and to share our research model of the mannequin head. Likewise, WPI hosted the Undergraduate Research Showcase where my research partner and I were asked to create a poster of our findings. For me, the Research Showcase helped me realize how diverse scientific fields are, as I saw astonishing work being demonstrated. From here, I was able to network with undergraduate students at WPI and learned to sell myself in a new environment with my work. 

During this same time, I additionally interned with the WPI Office of Pre-collegiate Affairs (OPA) as an online program tutor. Being accustomed to Zambian learning systems, this was an extra step in honing my leadership and delivery skills because I was teaching a new set of students. Further, my OPA position aided me in creating a support system at WPI, should I ever need help navigating a challenge and finding an internship. Through this role as a tutor, I have learned to be patient and accommodating of people’s different learning abilities.   

Altogether, this summer was instrumental in helping me find my rhythm and direction at WPI. I believe I have expanded my horizon and feel better prepared to take up an internship in Africa this coming summer and hopefully here afterwards.