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July 2012

Bringing Science to the Public in Three Easy Steps

EFRC scientists share their passion for energy research through community outreach

Jessica Morrison

Scientists from the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis participate in the Salmon Summit.

PARC's Education and Outreach coordinator Rachel Ruggirello supervises a student as he mixes titanium dioxide paste used as a semiconductor material in dye-sensitized solar cells, which mimic the process of photosynthesis.

Teachers participate in a workshop intended to provide guidance on science and engineering concepts that can be applied to specific projects in their classrooms.

If teaching catalysis to freshman undergraduates is a challenge, imagine explaining the intricacies of energy transfer and efficiency to 5th graders who have never taken a chemistry class! Going above and beyond the call of research, exemplary Energy Frontier Research Centers, or EFRCs, are doing just that.

While the primary mission of the EFRCs, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, is to advance basic research in energy-specific areas, many EFRCs have also addressed a national need to make science accessible by sharing their passion for science. For example, the Center for Nanoscale Control of Geologic CO2 offers free lectures by EFRC scientists to colleges, universities, societies, and industry.

Several centers focus on getting children interested in science, encouraging them to try new ideas, and supporting their educators.

Step 1: Get Kids Excited About Science

For the third year in a row, scientists from the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have participated in the Salmon Summit, an annual salmon-release event for elementary school students hosted by the Benton and Franklin Conservation Districts in Washington State.

During the Salmon Summit, students release finger-size salmon that they have raised from eggs in their classrooms into the Columbia River. The 2,500 students who attended the 2-day event in May also have a chance to visit 45 information stations to learn about science in their community. One of those stations was sponsored by the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis.

“We try to explain our role in generating alternative energy at the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis,” says Molly O’Hagan, a postdoctoral researcher in the Center. “For our presentation we explain a catalyst as a molecule that has a job. The job that our catalyst has is to produce hydrogen for energy purposes.”

Students gain hands-on experience with catalysts by trying to move water from one place to another with a spoon, multiple spoons, a paper bag, and finally a cup. They quickly realize that one spoon isn’t efficient, adding a second spoon isn’t very helpful, and a wet paper bag falls apart before deciding a cup gets the job done best.

Much like a scientist in a laboratory, occasionally a student will take a novel approach to solving the problem.

“When one student realized the spoon wasn’t a good catalyst, he tried to pick up the jug of water, carry it to the goal, and dump it in,” says O’Hagan. “He knew that he needed a better catalyst!”

Learn more about outreach at the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis.

Step 2: Encourage Students to Explore

Students at every level benefit from efforts at the Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center, or PARC, at Washington University in St. Louis to give students scientific insights into sustainability. The group supports a community garden project with a local charter school, provides energy curriculum kits for middle and high school students, and hosts Hot Topics workshops focused on energy and sustainability for grade 6-12 teachers.

Within their university, PARC also offers a certificate in Renewable Energy and the Environment in partnership with the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability for undergraduates. This certificate program encourages the pursuit of interdisciplinary energy studies in addition to a traditional degree.

“We purposefully made the certificate program co-curricular so that students can have an organized channel for interdisciplinary studies, outreach volunteer opportunities, and research,” says Natalie Goodwin-Frank, Operations Manager for PARC. “If an engineering student wants to take an architecture course on biomimicry or if a student works in a PARC lab over the summer, both would qualify as part of the certificate program.”

Earning a certificate is more than completing a minor; students also participate in Center outreach activities, field trips, and seminars throughout the academic year. Along with all PARC students and postdocs, undergraduates enrolled in the certificate program are eligible for the center’s Education & Outreach Mini-Grant, which encourages creative community outreach activities around bioenergy and the environment.

“There are 10 students enrolled in the certificate program, and we’ve just awarded our first two graduates with certificates,” says Goodwin-Frank.

Learn more about outreach at PARC.

Step 3: Give Teachers a New Perspective

The HeterFoaM EFRC at the University of South Carolina focuses its outreach efforts on the professional development of grade K-12 teachers. The Center partners with a local school district to offer teacher workshops, training programs, and conferences throughout the year.

“Our teachers learn a lot about engineering, energy, and real-world applications for things that they teach in their classrooms,” says Al Gates, coordinator of Science, Health and Physical Education programs for School District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties in South Carolina. “They also get a chance to see where science is going—the frontier of science.”

Visits to HeteroFoaM laboratories give teachers an opportunity to better understand the energy research at the University of South Carolina while also satisfying energy standards within the middle school science curriculum.

“Our teachers were amazed to discover just how much they didn’t know,” says Gates. “There’s research going on just down the street that is of national and international importance that people wouldn’t know about without this collaboration.”

More than 1500 science, technology, engineering and math teachers have been trained by the HeteroFoaM EFRC.

Additional EFRC Outreach Resources

EFRCs Community WebsiteEFRC Outreach Programs Group

Share outreach experiences and ideas with members of other EFRCs. This is available to EFRC members only. Registration required.

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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.