How Students Made the Most of Their Summer

By Jack Stedman

For many high school students, June to August is not just for rest, relaxation, and endless homework-free nights. These months involve typical "summer jobs"—first experiences of employment where one might learn about inventory, cash flow, and customer service. Or students might be involved in a pre-college program, where they can further examine their passions and hobbies. 

Both paths are deeply intertwined with student life at Commonwealth. The school's mandatory job program gives students the responsibility of caring for their space. Students lead recess and lunch clean-ups and are also in charge of recycling and other maintenance throughout the building. Project Week every January also gives students the exposure to professional environments, while also allowing them to gain mentors and experience in desired fields of study or professions.

This year Commonwealth students had to be a little more creative in finding engaging summer projects and work. Take a look at how four students spent their summer, from teaching over Zoom to using new engineering technology to studying pet behavior in a pandemic:

Becoming the Teacher for Long-Distance Learning

Antonella, Class of 2024

This summer I taught English to kids in Peru over Zoom. A bit of context: my parents are Peruivan immigrants, so I speak Spanish and English.

Now, on paper, it sounds awesome for a bilingual native speaker to teach English, even if they have no experience. Here's the truth: when a bilingual person starts rapidly switching between languages with no experience, they will have the human version of a system overload error, and find that they can speak neither! That is an issue when the kids you are teaching know little to no English. In addition, a native speaker never had to consciously learn the language, therefore there are many rules they follow without realizing them.

Another issue I encountered was cultural boundaries. After three frustrating classes of no homework turned in and no one speaking up, I went to my dad for advice. According to him, the kids were not speaking up because they were scared of me. That confused me, but it turns out that by Peruvian standards, I was being rude and intimidating. Why? Well, not enough pleasantries and a rift in sense of humor. Also, I expected them to take the things I said literally, but in Peru phrases like "call me if you need anything" are said often out of courtesy only. 

I also have newfound appreciation for my teachers after suffering through students who don't turn in their homework and having to resort to cold calling in class. Even worse was the Zoom classic: no camera, no microphone. When I started teaching the classes, I put together short videos to review what we had learned in class and explain the homework. I spent about three hours making and editing each three-minute video, and I eventually stopped making them. This week, my teacher Mr. Conolly put together a video lecture. The lecture was thirty-five minutes long, and included pictures and maps. I cannot begin to imagine all of the effort that went into that. Seriously though, teachers have such incredible patience.

But despite system overloads, cultural differences, and spotty patience, we managed to make it from "my name is" and reciting the alphabet to questions, negations, and the verb "to have." I learned a lot about patience, teaching, and even English and Spanish, and it was a great experience.

Perfecting Posters in Biotech Research

Soomin, Class of 2023

This summer, I participated in a virtual summer lab program called Biotech In Action, which was hosted by Biogen, a life sciences and biotechnology company focusing on neuroscience, and Lemelson-MIT, a group dedicated to supporting young inventors and their projects. Over the course of this program, we learned about laboratory skills, neurodegenerative diseases, and specifically, various methods and technologies that are used to help those with Parkinson's disease. Most of this program was academic, and all of our work and assignments culminated in a final poster project on a proposed treatment or cure of a specific neurodegenerative disease.

The best part of the program was the opportunity to dive deeper into the skills and knowledge I learned last year in my Biology class by applying them to particular situations. This was done mostly on Labster, which is an online lab environment that gives students simulated cases (mostly treating patients using biotechnology) where they apply various laboratory techniques and methods. While some topics on Labster were certainly more difficult to understand (everything about plasmids makes my head hurt), seeing how concepts I read about in a textbook could be applied to specific problems really solidified my understanding of those topics. And of course, being able to create treatments for patients using various lab techniques, even if the situations were simulated and online, was so rewarding and has made me more excited about possibly going into research in the future.

Before diving into this program, I was intimidated by the very thought of having to create and present a scientific poster. Research has always been some distant, faraway concept for me, something I thought was only for the smartest and best scientists. However, this program has allowed me to see that though research can be frantic yet tedious, and you won't always get the results you want, and trying to socialize with people you just met on Zoom can make for some awkward silences, the experience is what you make of it. While I wasn't a biology expert or research extraordinaire going in (or coming out!), this program has given me the opportunity to explore my interests in neuroscience and biotechnology, subjects I have been interested in for a while but have never gotten the chance to really pursue. That made the seemingly endless Labsters, confusing biology topics, panicked article reading, stressful poster designing, and awkward Zoom silences worth it. Now, thoughts of research and poster sessions don't fill me with dread. And I got a pretty decent poster out of it, too!

Collecting Data on Animal Behavior

Maoz, Class of 2021

As coronavirus was getting more and more serious and businesses were shutting down, most of my animal-related work had to stop. The veterinary clinic and wildlife center I was volunteering at both closed for volunteers, so I was left without much to do. I wanted to continue my animal work as much as possible though, and in the process of doing some unrelated reading, I came across a study by the Royal Veterinary College (University of London) on behavioral changes in companion pets during COVID-19-associated restrictions. I emailed the professor in charge of the study, a small animal behavioral specialist, and he agreed to conduct an offshoot of it in the Boston area—where I would be responsible for collecting data from as many respondents as possible via an online survey. I posted to Facebook groups from across the greater Boston area, emailed several groups, talked to every pet owner I know, and called nearly every veterinary clinic and pet shop in the area to distribute the survey as much as possible. 

In all, we collected more than 630 responses and are currently in the process of analyzing the data and writing a paper. The study was also conducted in Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom, and the results do show behavioral changes in pets, especially in dogs. (You'll have to wait for the paper to come out to learn more!)

Through this process, I learned a lot about how research is done and what the procedures are for conducting it, including collecting data and analyzing it. I also learned about the importance of communication, both with the professor in charge of the study and with the participants who had questions or comments a lot of the time, particularly right now, when everything had to be fully virtual. I really enjoyed this amazing opportunity, and when I am a veterinarian (my dream job!) then I would definitely be interested in doing research.

Automating for the Future

Steve, Class of 2021

This past summer, I worked as a programmer at a robotics startup in Boston called Southie Autonomy. Southie creates "no-code" logistics and automation solutions for companies. Essentially, they create programs for robots that greatly simplify automating parts of a company's workflow. Many businesses today benefit from adding robots to their production process, including packaging items, loading/unloading products onto pallets, and other use cases. The problem with traditional automation is that companies have to hire specialized employees to program and maintain the robots. This is both expensive and time-consuming due to each robot requiring special programming to complete a simple task. With Southie's solution, workers only have to complete a simple calibration procedure and show the robot the location to pick up and place items. This makes automation cheaper and simpler for virtually any application that involves simple repetitive tasks. Here's a visual demonstration of how this works.

Over the summer, I worked on several existing company projects and also developed a few of my own. One of the projects is called the "blizzard" project, where a 3D rendering of the robot is projected onto a computer screen for workers to see the status of the robot. Another project, the largest one I developed myself, was an AI-assisted razor dispenser locator. The program takes an input image of razor dispensers on a table and uses algorithms and an artificial intelligence image recognition model to find the location and orientation on a table. Here's what the artificial intelligence image detection looks like in action. These locations and orientations are then given to the program that controls the robot so that it knows where to pick up the dispensers. While I worked on about eight different projects at Southie over the summer, this one was by far the most difficult because I had to create several algorithmic and AI-based image detectors/processors. At the same time, it was the most interesting because I had to create a complex program using algorithms and artificial intelligence with no guidance.