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Summer 2015

Bringing Energy Science into the Classroom

Energy Frontier Research Centers help K-12 teachers integrate cutting-edge science into their curriculum

Kathryn Fixen

Education raises awareness of the country’s energy challenges and encourages the next generation to join in solving these challenges.

 While you can easily see a group of young scientists explaining their work to senior managers, you might not think of them spending their free time talking to grade school teachers. For many researchers, science education is a lifelong passion that complements their work making transformative discoveries. Why? Because volunteering with students and teachers lets scientists raise awareness of the country’s energy challenges and how science is overcoming these challenges. Many scientists associated with Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) have developed programs for younger students and their teachers, believing that future energy independence depends on inspiring young people to continue finding solutions to our energy challenges.

Helping teachers bring energy science into the classroom is a two-way street. Scientists are helping teachers share exciting advances in energy sciences to inspire the next generation of young scientists. For many teachers, the scientists can provide resources and guidance for bringing the latest advances into the classroom curriculum.

Bill McLaughlin, a chemistry professor at Montana State University affiliated with the Biological Electron Transfer and Catalysis (BETCy) Center, said, "I have found over many years of teaching that teachers, particularly in rural areas, want to do well and be creative but don't have the resources or collaboration opportunities they need. Outreach provides teachers with that missing collaborative exchange, materials, and a feeling of empowerment."

The centers also have a cadre of graduate students and postdocs who are excited to share new discoveries with teachers.

"They really love what they do, and they love to share that with teachers," said Rachel Ruggirello, Education and Outreach coordinator for the Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center (PARC).

In turn, teachers help to translate the science done at EFRCs to a wider audience. William Hoffeditz, a fifth-year graduate student at the Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research (ANSER) Center, saw this first hand after participating in a workshop to help teachers learn about solar energy and, more broadly, climate change and sustainability science and incorporate it into their curriculum.

"If you asked me to go into a classroom to teach children about dye-sensitized solar cells, I would almost certainly fail," said Hoffeditz. "The communication and the understanding of the children and how they learn would not be there. But, if I can accurately convey these ideas to the instructors themselves, they will be able to use their experience and expertise to convey these ideas in an approachable and understandable way to their students."

Making energy science tangible for teachers. Scientists from EFRCs are making energy concepts more accessible to teachers and their students through the development of in-class activities and workshops.

"Having a real, tangible concept in front of people gets them interested. Show and tell is effective," said Adam Weingarten, a sixth-year graduate student at ANSER. Some centers, such as the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI), collaborate with local schools to hold hands-on demonstrations illustrating principles in energy sciences.

Graduate students and postdocs usually lead these demonstrations, allowing them the opportunity to work side by side with educators. "Our grad students and postdocs have a unique opportunity to ignite in younger students a passion for catalytic science that inspires the students to consider a career in chemical engineering or a related field," said Sheila Boulden, business administrator and outreach coordinator for CCEI.

Other centers put on workshops to help teachers learn about concepts in energy and sustainability and how to incorporate those concepts into their curriculum. For example, PARC sponsors a series of "hot topics" workshops to help middle school teachers integrate renewable energy issues into their curriculum. As part of the Climate Change and Sustainability Workshop, ANSER researchers train teachers to use in-class demonstrations on solar electricity and solar fuels. These workshops allow teachers to learn how to incorporate cutting-edge science from an expert while learning new techniques for engaging students.

"For us, the reward is that we stay connected to the classroom and see how we can keep teachers and students excited and engaged," said Ruggirello. "We can also reach students who are underrepresented in science."

These in-class demonstrations and workshops have also led to developing tangible materials that help teachers make energy concepts more relevant to their students. PARC developed a series of Energy Kits to help convey concepts in renewable energy, and ANSER developed a chemistry lab that allows students to build perovskite solar cells, an important area of research at ANSER (read more about perovskite solar cells in this newsletter).

The future of EFRC science outreach includes collaboration. EFRC science outreach programs are starting to expand through collaborations between centers. In a joint effort between BETCy and PARC, McLaughlin used the energy kits developed at PARC to help teachers learn about solar energy as part of a workshop for the Montana Small Schools Association. Such collaborations could allow centers to pool their resources to help engage more teachers and allow greater dissemination of resources that highlight current energy challenges and how EFRCs are tackling those challenges.

PARC has also developed new programs to allow researchers and teachers greater freedom to further develop and improve educational activities. As part of their Education and Outreach Mini-Grant program, students, postdocs, and educators affiliated with PARC can receive funds to design their own activities to bring bioenergy and environmental concepts to classrooms. The Teacher Leader Program recognizes teachers that have improved the curriculum developed by PARC, and allows them to take on a leadership role by organizing a 4-day energy workshop series for teachers.

It is clear that the people working with the EFRCs believe in science education and its importance in pushing the frontiers of energy research.

About the author(s):

  • Kathryn Fixen is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is a member of the Center for Biological Electron Transfer and Catalysis  (BETCy) under the advisement of Caroline Harwood. Kathryn’s research is focused on engineering new functionality into photosynthetic bacteria to create bacteria that can convert solar energy into forms of energy that society can use.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.