Sun, Sand, and STEM at UCSC

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In 1998, the California State Legislature established the California State Summer School for Science and Mathematics (COSMOS), a four-week intensive summer program focused on various STEM-related fields. It gives attendees the opportunity to live like college students for a month and create lifelong memories with their peers. The program was first launched in 2000 at the UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) and UC Irvine campuses and was then expanded to UC Davis in 2001 and UC San Diego in 2004.

Students apply to one of many “clusters,” with topics ranging from marine biology to neuroscience to artificial intelligence (AI). With only a third of applicants accepted, it’s a competitive program. Dr. Shaowei Chen, faculty director of the UC Santa Cruz COSMOS branch, explained that when it comes to the choosing between the courses offered at COSMOS, “If you don’t find a cluster you’re interested in at UCSC, check the other campuses. COSMOS has four separate campuses, so that’s four chances to find your cluster.”   

While it is expensive, each of the campuses offers need-based financial aid. I found the experience to be well worth the cost, especially since it provided such a good opportunity to connect with students who share the passion of learning. Not only that, but both my classmates and I came away from the program with a renewed sense of purpose for pursuing our own individual passions. COSMOS encourages students to develop and grow their love of learning, away from an environment that focuses on grades as the primary measurement of success. 

Every group has two separate courses that students attend in two and a half hour blocks every day. Dr. Noren, who currently teaches an Introductory Biology course at UCSC and works at the Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS) said, “Use your time to ask people in the positions you want how they got there, what internships and what classes they recommend.” Noren emphasized the importance of connection at COSMOS, recommending that students “use their time now for connection. Unplug, talk to your peers, they might know something cool.” 

Many of the instructors are professors who taught or currently teach at UCSC, and the teaching assistants are graduate students, pursuing various fields of study in their respective topics. Each day is jam-packed with activities, classes, and recreational time in the dorms. The day starts off with a Discovery Lecture led by a new professor or educator on a topic they specialize in and is followed by classes, group activities and recreational time. 

Photo courtesy of Shaowei Chen.

The camp isn’t strictly academic. Every weekend, the Resident Assistants (RAs) take students out for activities, ranging from kayaking at the beach to a day at the Boardwalk to a scenic train ride through Roaring Camp Railroads. Students also participate in a camp-wide COSMOS Olympics during their last weekend there, competing in events such as watermelon eating and an intense game of tug of war.

Each cluster goes on group field trips, including a trip to Monterey for whale-watching (Marine Mammals and Microbiology), a trip to the Computer History Museum (Video Game Design), and a trip to the Google Headquarters (Nanochemistry and Nanotechnology). The field trips are memorable and a great way to get to know your fellow classmates.

Beach photo courtesy of Natalie Farell and kayaking photo courtesy of Roberto Osorio.

On the last full day of the program, COSMOS hosts a STEM symposium, where students present final projects centered around their cluster—often with partners or in small groups. The symposium is a great way to see what students outside of your own specific program have worked on throughout the camp. The night is rounded out by a COSMOS dance, followed by a closing ceremony the next morning, where each student receives their certificate of completion.

Photo courtesy of Kinley Renger.
Photo courtesy of Shaowei Chen.

“Even if you don’t end up attending COSMOS, there are a lot of ways to pursue your passion and get where you want to go in the world,” Dr. Chen said. He suggests looking at STEM programs in your local community, asking your mentors or teachers for suggestions, or even talking to COSMOS alumni at M-A. Further information about the program, including this year’s application dates, can be found on the COSMOS website. 

If you’re interested in hearing more about the program, take a look at the Macrocosm 2023 website. It features a week by week overview, professor and teacher assistant interviews, cluster specific information, comics about camp life, and detailed dining hall reviews.

Ellen is a senior at M-A and in her first year of journalism. She hopes to write about stories that highlight social issues within M-A’s community. In her free time, she enjoys baking, reading, swimming, and spending time with friends.

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