Features - July 2016

STEM Education Today Ensures a Skilled Workforce Tomorrow

Many people working in today’s science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, including those pushing the boundaries of energy research at NETL, can recall an event from their childhood when a love of science began. Whether it was watching the moon landing on a grainy black and white television, succeeding under the guidance of a particularly insightful educator, or enjoying the rush of discovery after a first-time scientific exercise, childhood experiences played a prominent role in setting many of our most accomplished energy innovators on the path to successful STEM careers. 

Because NETL recognizes the importance of STEM education for increasing scientific literacy, creating critical thinkers, and providing the tools for new problem solvers to take their place in the world, we engage in a variety of educational outreach programs that inspire students and help area teachers secure the supplies and knowledge they need to elevate their students’ understanding of STEM subjects and inspire another generation of innovation.

Those next-generation scientists will face tougher and more complex challenges as population increases and energy consumption steadily rises. As a National Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy—the only National Laboratory dedicated to fossil energy research—NETL has a responsibility to instill in our nation’s youth a sense of curiosity to explore energy issues and underscore the great importance of STEM work. Those goals are an essential part of our mission because the future of energy research depends on the next generation.

NETL promotes STEM education that will ensure a skilled workforce in the future by establishing connections and partnerships that provide education resources for teachers, hosting and cohosting Science Bowl® competitions, visiting regional schools, bringing students to the lab to see STEM professionals in action, and offering internships for college students. These efforts don’t take a break for the summer months, either—educational outreach is a year-round endeavor at NETL.

Educational Partnerships and Regional Connections

Each year, NETL expands our educational outreach by leveraging strategic partnerships with various organizations to offer unique educational opportunities. Two such groups in Pittsburgh are the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh (SSP) and the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh (SACP), both of whom are involved with teacher’s workshops. Each year, SSP and NETL host the Triple E and the Light, Color, and Spectroscopy workshops, which entertain and educate the teachers in attendance and provide them with fun new ways to bring science alive in their own classrooms. NETL and SACP also host a computer workshop each year that provides essential computer training and hardware to give teachers the technological edge when they return to their schools.

Another Pittsburgh connection comes from the Carnegie Science Center, which houses the NETL-developed “Energy Challenge” exhibit. Since 2010, visitors of all ages have enjoyed playing the quiz game, which is designed to educate visitors about the importance of energy in our daily lives, how energy works, and how we can conserve and reduce our energy use.

In addition to these well-established partnerships, the Lab recently partnered with TEKids, a volunteer organization comprised of teachers and professionals, and welcomed area educators to the Morgantown site to take part in a workshop titled, “EnergyMakers.” The program equipped educators with an 8-week, STEM-based curriculum that emphasized responsible fossil-fuel use and environmental stewardship—important principals at the heart of the Laboratory’s mission.

School Visits

As many teachers can attest, presenting science in an entertaining and informative manner proves challenging, especially to students who have not been exposed to the many opportunities available in STEM career paths. At the same time, these teachers may be the only influence a student has to receive encouragement regarding STEM education.

As such, NETL partners with teachers in their classrooms to provide in-school demonstrations, experiments, and activities that make science fun for the students. NETL’s Educational Outreach Team ensures that these activities align with national standards so educators can be certain that their students are receiving the best and most appropriate information to help them develop an interest in STEM subjects.

The My Brother’s Keeper Initiative

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Students came eager to learn at the inaugural “My Brother’s Keeper” event at NETL.

For the last 2 years, NETL has had the honor of being selected for “My Brother’s Keeper,” a presidential initiative designed to close opportunity gaps for young minority students. Students, elementary through high school, visit NETL to see how researchers use scientific principles and experimentation to create the energy innovations that are helping the United States achieve energy independence, ensure national security, and keep the environment safe.

The goal of the event is to spark the visitors’ interest in STEM and help them recognize opportunities for future careers in the field. President Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper in 2014 to address opportunity gaps that young minority people face. According to a White House report titled, “The Economic Costs of Youth Disadvantage and High-Return Opportunities for Change,” those opportunity gaps “hold back the U.S. economy, lowering aggregate earnings, shrinking the labor market, and slowing economic growth.”

Science Bowl®

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This is the 25th year for the National Science Bowl.

It’s no secret that competition can catalyze advancement in sports, and this is also very true of science and scholarship. The “Space Race” in the 1960s brought about a rapid series of technological advancements because, we as a nation were competing with the Soviet Union for a race to the moon. Competition pushes us as humans and provides the kind of motivation that often brings us to the next level of achievement. The DOE National Science Bowl channels the spirit of competition into STEM learning through its annual tournament that begins at a local level and culminates in a prestigious event to determine a national champion.

The Energy Department created the National Science Bowl in 1991 to encourage students to excel in mathematics and science and to pursue careers in these fields. Approximately 240,000 students have participated in the DOE National Science Bowl over the last 24 years, and it is one of the nation’s largest science competitions. This year marked the competition’s 25th year, and participation has steadily increased over since inception. In 1991, 18 regional high school tournaments took place; this year, more than 9,500 high school students are expected to compete in 70 regional events across the United States as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

NETL has been hosting regional qualifying competitions since the beginning, and the Lab facilitates four regional Science Bowls: the West Virginia Regional Science Bowl (WVSB) for high school and middle school students and the Southwestern Pennsylvanian Regional Science Bowl (SWPA), which also hosts a competition for high school and middle school students. 

Internships

Every year brings another crop of graduates who are eager to make their marks on the world outside academics. Internship opportunities give these emerging talents the chance to develop the skills and practical experience that will help guide their career paths. Hands-on experience in laboratory environments offers a real-world understanding of how research and technology development is conducted, as well as an opportunity to experience mentorship under established scientists and engineers.

For young scientists, graduating and leaving academia to take the first steps into research careers or industry can be an exhilarating but turbulent time. NETL works with several organizations to ensure that the promising STEM talents of the next generation are given a place to grow and thrive through a number of popular and successful programs, including the Mickey Leland Fellowship, a summer internship that provides minority and female students pursuing degrees in STEM the opportunity to spend a summer working under the mentorship of researchers at NETL; the Office of Science Graduate Student Research (SCGSR), a program designed to prepare graduate students for STEM careers; the NRC Research Associateship Program (RAP), which caters to early career scientists performing graduate level or post-doctoral work; and internships in conjunction with the Oak Ridge Institute for Education and Science (ORISE), which provide opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students, graduate and postdoctoral researchers, and faculty researchers to participate in energy research at NETL.

Many of these interns will go on to work at NETL and mentor other students, thus completing the teacher–student cycle that continues to enrich our communities with a highly skilled, STEM-savvy workforce.

From Grade School to Laboratory

When reviewing all of the efforts NETL makes towards STEM education and training, a paradigm emerges in which students can first find inspiration, then support for their life-long study of STEM subjects. Imagine a child who might not have been otherwise exposed to STEM education, first hearing about NETL through an educational program that their teacher presents after attending an NETL workshop, then possibly visiting the Carnegie Science Center and playing the “Energy Challenge.” Maybe that student’s scientific curiosity would be further piqued by a visit to their classroom by NETL researchers, causing them to become involved and participate in a science bowl competition. And maybe, ultimately that student would decide to intern at the Lab during their college years.

While it seems unlikely that a single student’s life would be impacted by all of NETL’s STEM outreach efforts, fortunately, it only takes one strong impression to set a student on the rewarding path of a STEM career, and NETL is there from grade school to post-graduate, encouraging and expanding STEM opportunities at every step. We do this because a STEM-educated workforce is essential to our mission success, and when we succeed, the nation benefits from clean, reliable energy.