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University engineering grad students bring energy research into K-12 classrooms


University of Nevada, Reno mechanical engineering researcher and associate professor Kam Leang, right, watches today as eighth-grade students at Mendive Middle School conduct an experiment with metallic salts. Their teacher Nick Nemsgren keeps a close eye as the students observe and record the flame test experiments that examine electron energy by heating strontium chloride to release light quantum, or photon energy, in the form of colored light. The class is one of six in the Washoe County School District that are a part of a National Science Foundation funded $1.2 million program to encourage science, technology, engineering and math curriculum in K-12 schools. Photo by Mike Wolterbeek, University of Nevada, Reno.

Graduate students at the University of Nevada, Reno are back in middle and high school this fall, at the front of the classroom, working with teachers to present their energy-related science and engineering research to students.

With a $1.2 million grant awarded to the College of Engineering from the National Science Foundation, doctoral students will be enhancing their skills above and beyond a traditional graduate program by providing valuable training in teaching, mentoring and communicating science and technology to the local schools.

The innovative curriculum, supported by the NSF’s “Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education” (GK-12) program, engages K-12 teachers and students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The University’s undertaking has a slight twist, and is named “GK-12 E-Fellowship Program,” where the “E” stands for energy.

“It’s an exciting project with significant benefits for all involved,” Kam K. Leang said. He is the project’s principal investigator and an associate professor in the mechanical engineering department at the University.  “Particularly, the training program’s main goal is to build on doctoral students’ science and technology education, to prepare these NSF E-Fellows to become future STEM leaders and to help promote and grow STEM in Nevada. In doing that, we partner with Washoe County middle and high schools.”

This three-year endeavor is meant to inspire interest in STEM. Six University graduate students are matched each year with STEM teachers in four Washoe County School District schools.  Through inquiry- and project-based activities, they will encourage middle and high school students to ask questions that lead them to their own discovery of knowledge and exploration of science.

Research topics include energy harvesting using smart materials, nanomaterials for photovoltaics, hydrogen energy and storage, biomass and biofuels, geothermal, wind energy and efficient power grid systems. This semester the E-fellows are working on energy-efficient micro-vehicles, flight dynamics and trajectory planning of descent vehicles and earthquake and structural engineering.

“This project aligns with the strategic priorities of the college to increase our doctorate enrollment, prepare our graduate students for future STEM disciplines and to build a pathway for K-12 students through high school, college and to the workforce,” Manos Maragakis, dean of the College of Engineering, said. “It is a unique collaboration between the University and the Washoe County School District,”

Leang heads a team of faculty members who all helped design and run the program, including Jeffrey LaCombe and Eric Wang from the engineering department, Mike Robinson from the College of Education and Kwang Kim from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

This program will involve faculty from mechanical, civil, electrical, chemical, and materials engineering, as well as the College of Science, College of Education and the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources.

As part of the program, a traveling energy science/technology lab, the E-Mobile, will be outfitted with energy-related demonstrations, exhibits and hands-on projects (some created by fellow/teacher partners and students) to excite students and the community about engineering.

“Getting one of these programs is a very competitive process, and we’re lucky to be awarded this fellowship program to support our students and the community, as it’s an important step in continuing to build education programs in Nevada that will compete nationally and internationally,” Leang said. “We’re hoping this three-year grant is just a first step and we’ll keep expanding for years to come.”

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