The McNair Student Achievement ProgramThe University of Hawaii at Manoa

2011 Summer Internships

Engineering solar power improvement

Overview: Andy Pham has tied together concepts of mechanical systems and electrical circuitry in an effort to build a better solar panel. It has taken some tinkering, but he now has a prototype in his hands and he would like it to someday put it into the public's hands where it could become a model for a small device that could mean big cost reductions in home energy costs.

The origins of engineering can be traced back many centuries to the application of human ingenuity in building pulleys and levers and other devices that make for easier living. Today, engineering is a broad scientific discipline with several distinctive branches, including electrical engineering that deals with the study and application of electricity in building everything from large power systems to tiny circuits. So explains UH Professor Aaron Ohta inside a UH Holmes laboratory where he observes his McNair mentee Andy Pham demonstrate an electrical engineering project that is all about increasing the efficiency of solar panel technology. Andy holds in his hands a small board that appears to be a jumble of wires but is really a combination of electrical circuitry, light sensors and a mechanical system. This is Andy's prototype for a solar panel that will produce more power by following the path of the sun's rays. He deftly adjusts the angle of the panel and then passes his hand between a light source and the small board. Sure enough, the prototype panel tilts in the direction of abundant light. Andy smiles at the effect and explains that the fun part of engineering is taking a problem like energy sustainability and inventing a solution. If his project sounds extremely complicated, he says it's not. "You can actually build a panel like the one I made for very little money," he says. As for his inspiration for building this summer internship project, Andy says he has been inspired by his coursework. Plus, he laughs, new ideas for building better solutions have appeared to him in his dreams at night, especially after a long day in the electrical engineering lab.

Andy Pham works on re-tooling solar panels with help from mechanical engineering core concepts.

Andy Pham works on re-tooling solar panels with help from mechanical engineering core concepts.

This prototype of a solar panel is aimed at energy efficiency.

This prototype of a solar panel is aimed at energy efficiency.

Understanding ethnic differences in underage drinking

Overview: Justin Ragasa gained experience in public health media messaging when he worked for a local anti-tobacco campaign that was created by and for Hawai'i youths. His summer internship project could provide similar opportunities to address health problems affecting his peer group. He has been working on an analysis of underage drinking trends in Hawai'i. Specifically, he has been looking at the role of ethnicity in shaping youths' attitudes in regards to alcohol consumption. Once this is understood, the alcohol abuse prevention messages can be better targeted to the groups that most need it. Justin would like to continue the analysis of the study. He is curious as to whether other factors, such as gender or family structure, might also influence a young person's choice to drink.

McNair scholar Justin Ragasa became interested in public health research when he was involved in the REAL project, an anti-smoking campaign created by and for local youths. "We looked at the statistics on tobacco use and we applied what we learned in class to exposing (the false claims of) the tobacco industry," he says. Most of all, Justin liked the disease prevention aspect of public health. "You’re really doing something to help people," he says.

Justin has parlayed this interest into his McNair summer internship project. Under the guidance of UH Mānoa Social and Health Behavioral Sciences Professor Stephan Keller, Justin is preparing an analysis of underage drinking differences across ethnicities in Hawai‘i. He is sorting through a survey of 600 local youths, ages 13 to 20. The survey is part of a federally funded initiative that tackles the problem of underage drinking with a notably positive media campaign. It focuses on young people who don’t drink but also need facts plus a few good behavioral tips to continue to do the right thing.

Professor Keller says the UH analysis of the study is important, because ethnicity plays a major role in shaping attitudes towards alcohol consumption. Justin says he hopes any new findings will eventually help to craft prevention messages, effectively targeting to youths from different backgrounds. The UH analysis of the varying social norms affecting underage drinking will soon be published in a peer review journal.

In the meantime, Justin is putting in his hours as a student researcher and getting better acquainted with the field of public health. He says the work is solitary and requires patience but, he adds, "(Working in these conditions) has helped me understand myself better."

Justin’s summer internship project is based on the underage drinking prevention campaign:
"More than you think-Hawai‘i."

Campaign updates available on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/MoreThanThink

Does ethnicity affect underage drinking? Aided by student researcher Justin, Professor Keller is finding answers

Does ethnicity affect underage drinking? Aided by student researcher Justin, Professor Keller is finding answers.

Project grows "dorm lettuce"

Overview: Laurel Pikcunas has given a lot of thought to the interaction between plants and people. Based on personal experience, she believes that growing your own food is good for the mind, body and soul. With grocery bills rising, others doubtlessly share her feeling. But Laurel has determined to test her hunch scientifically. She spent her summer internship preparing to teach a handful of UH students to cultivate lettuce without the muss and fuss of tilling soil. Hint: Her subjects will be working a new type of window garden.

McNair Scholar Laurel Pikcunas enthuses that she "simply loves plants." Her internship project is likely to explain why. It tests the hypothesis that plants promote a sense of harmony. This summer she is preparing for the project by testing a specialized indoor plant kit that was obtained with help from the McNair program. The kit is made up of recycled water bottles and an airlift system designed for hydroponic cultivation.

Laurel proudly points to early indicators of promising results: hearty lettuce leaves as green as the backdrop of the Mānoa mountains are growing flush against the capsules that line the windows of the UH lab, where she’s been working with her McNair mentor Dr. Andy Kaufman of the College of Tropical Agriculture. When the semester begins, Laurel will be providing the kits to her volunteer subjects—a handful of UH dorm denizens. They will try out their lettuce-growing luck in their dorm rooms, while journaling about the experience. At the end of several weeks, Laurel will use clinical tests to measure any changes in the mental and emotional states of participants. Finally, participants will have the chance to harvest the leaves-of-their-labor for a "lettuce party," laughs Laurel, who has a strong interest in merging the fields of social and environmental sciences. In fact, she hopes her project’s focus on exploring the plant-people bond will further the goals of the sustainability movement. She is confident that her subjects will, at the very least, discover that growing your own food is easy—and fun. Professor Kaufman is encouraging her. "This project is certain to have real-world application," he says.

Laurel Pikcunas confers with Professor Andy Kaufman.

Laurel Pikcunas confers with Professor Andy Kaufman.

Lettuce leaves thrive in McNair summer project.

Lettuce leaves thrive in McNair summer project.