The Scientist’s Apprentice

Computer science undergraduate Hannah Adams Colett (left) and Ph.D. student Jill Cao (center) team up with Professor Margaret Burnett in her lab in 2013.
Computer science undergraduate Hannah Adams Colett (left) and Ph.D. student Jill Cao (center) team up with Professor Margaret Burnett in her lab in 2013.

For computer scientist Margaret Burnett, the call for broader impacts (see “Terra Up Close” below) means reaching far and wide outside her door. But it begins right inside the heart of her lab at Oregon State University. Every year, she brings in a handful of students, both high schoolers and recent graduates, to work side-by-side with her team of budding computer scientists.

“Faculty members don’t always realize that broader impacts can be satisfied in a lot of different ways,” says Burnett, who works with the STEM Academy’s Apprenticeships in Science and Engineering program to handpick students for the eight-week summer internships. “It’s not only outreach to kids, and it’s not only underrepresented groups. There are a lot of different things that can count. Different kinds of broader impacts fit some personalities more than others.”

Burnett’s forte is her ability to craft growth environments for aspiring computer scientists at all stages of development. Just downstairs from her office in the Kelley Engineering Center, researchers of all ages huddle over keyboards around a hub of computers. In one corner sits a pair of high schoolers puzzling their way through a challenging data-analysis task. Nearby sits Amber Horvath, an undergraduate veteran of the lab who is ready to not only answer questions, but also teach new skills. The OSU sophomore enjoys serving as a point of reference for the younger students with whom she shares this space. It’s not a shortage of square footage that drives their proximity and interaction. Rather, it’s by design.

Broader Impacts

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“When I came in as a high schooler,” Horvath says, “I got to work with a grad student on her dissertation, and the work she was doing blew my mind. I’d never been exposed to computer science except for knowing those classes existed in high school — and thinking that I didn’t want to take them.”

Team Integration

Like Hovarth, many of Burnett’s students work in her lab when they come to college. Then it’s their turn to serve as role models, lending what Burnett calls a “second set of eyeballs.” While the younger students are competitively bright, the culture shift from secondary education into academia can be huge, Burnett notes. They can face a steep learning curve — parsing lengths of code, for example, or dabbling in a new programming language.

The projects she assigns aren’t pre-packaged exercises. Rather, the students become fully integrated into her established research team. To make meaningful contributions, she says, students need to acquire skills and habits not taught in K-12 classrooms.

“The challenge is getting them to really own the quality of what they do, instead of turning something in for a grade, which the teacher assigns,” she explains. “Here, we don’t have time to grade things and give them back. We need them to be right.”

Teamwork provides support while challenging students to learn new methods. Key is consistent feedback on the quality of their work in progress. What they take away creates a lasting positive impression. “For me, having these extra students is a productivity enhancer, not a separate task,” Burnett says. “Some people think, ‘Oh, I don’t have time to do more work!’ But I think of it as less work.”

And the payoff for students? A number of Burnett’s lab apprentices have jumpstarted their careers in companies like MathWorks, Intel, Microsoft and Google.

How to Get Involved

All across the university’s STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), research labs like Burnett’s play host to high schoolers through two programs: Apprenticeships in Science and Engineering (ASE) and Research Experiences for Undergrads (REU).

The application process, reflective of processes for professionals, challenges students with essays, resumes, cover letters and interviews. Mentors can design special eight-week projects for their students, but Burnett recommends that those who have established projects simply incorporate ASE students in their primary work.

Victoria Bonebrake
Victoria Bonebrake

Getting involved with ASE is as easy as applying through Saturday Academy’s website. Orientations, safety forms, and legal information are provided through the program. For more information on getting involved with ASE, visit them at Or, for those looking to use ASE as a broader impact, feel free to contact OSU’s Pre-College Programs at early in the impact planning process.

–Story by Victoria Bonebrake, OSU Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning