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ODU’s Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center Connects Students with Experts

By Jonah Grinkewitz

Not much is known about Lake Ballard, a small, man-made lake in Portsmouth's Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve.

That's where interns from Old Dominion University's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC) come in.

Four Portsmouth public high school and home-school students and recent graduates are spending the summer gathering and analyzing data from the lake with the help of VMASC staff.

Using tools and equipment from the research center, they are measuring the salinity, water depth (or bathymetry) and topography of the lake, as well as studying micro and macro biology.

This builds on research from last year's internship program where high school students focused on invasive species in the area.

The internships are funded by the VMASC STEM and Student Engagement Department, led by Jessica Johnson and Patrick Ball.

Together, they design, develop and coordinate summer programming for regional students, including research internships, the Kerbal Summer Camp and the STEM HS internship.

The programs are a regional collaboration between VMASC, higher education institutions and school divisions.

The STEM internship at Hoffler Creek is an opportunity for students to learn and do real-world research that fills in the blanks for the community they live in.

Nakaiya Hudson is a senior at Manor High School and grew up in Portsmouth.

"I had never heard of Hoffler Creek or Lake Ballard before this internship," she said.

Jaleel Randolph recently graduated from Manor High. She recognizes the significance of the work they're doing.

"I already believe I'm an important person, so this just adds to the resume," she said, with a laugh.

One piece of equipment students get to operate is a hydrone, an autonomous surface vessel that can provide imagery and map the depth of the lake.

"This is a multidisciplinary experience for the students," said Tom Allen, geography professor at ODU. "It exposes them to technology, career paths, research and coastal resilience."

For five weeks, students will split their time between field research at Hoffler Creek and analyzing their findings at VMASC's facility in Suffolk. The work will culminate in a podcast produced by the students, with interviews and voice-overs that they record.

Joshua Dungan, a senior home-school student, has taken a lead on the podcast.

"I want to just talk to more people, and these interviews will do that, to see people with different degrees and different jobs," he said.

The high school internship program is just one of many opportunities for students at different levels to interact with and learn from VMASC's faculty and resources.

Kellie Fennell, a graduate student assistant studying digital communication at ODU, is interning at VMASC for the summer. In addition to helping the students with their podcast, she's learning how to apply her skills in a STEM environment.

"I realized that with my communication skills, I could help generalize and make some of the more scientific information easier to understand for people outside of the field," she said.

Devon Nelson is a senior at ODU majoring in game studies and design. He said his internship at VMASC this summer has helped narrow his focus on what he wants to do in the field.

"When I got into the major, I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do game design-wise, so I figured I'll take this internship and if I like 3-D modeling, then I'll pursue that path. Which I did," he said. "It's been incredibly productive. Just having this space has been really helpful."

Jared Cochran is a sophomore at Tidewater Community College who plans to transfer into ODU's computer engineering program.

With the help of John Shull, a lead project scientist at VMASC, Cochran is coding software and testing autonomous vehicles.

"Getting to see it actually move is very rewarding," he said. "Instead of just seeing text appear and being like, 'Yeah, it works!'"

Shull said VMASC is bringing students and experts together.

"Collaboration at the high school, community college and university level - I think that is what's needed more than ever," he said.

To learn more, visit the VMASC website.

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