The University of Arizona Logo
photo of arid land surface

UA Engineers Get $2.7 Million to Teach High School Kids About Water and Energy in Arid Areas

Time to read
3 minutes
Read so far

UA Engineers Get $2.7 Million to Teach High School Kids About Water and Energy in Arid Areas

April 19, 2010
National Science Foundation grant gets grad students and researchers teaching together.

Professor Kim Ogden of the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering has been awarded $2.7 million by the National Science Foundation for a project that gets engineering graduates and educators teaching side by side in school classrooms.

The award was made under the NSF Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education, or GK-12, program. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The program aims to give graduate students, or fellows, a greater understanding of their own work, and to improve their teaching abilities while sparking kids' interest in engineering. "The idea is for graduate students to invigorate the junior high and high school curricula by bringing their research related to water and energy engineered systems directly to the classroom," Ogden said.

In addition, schoolteachers will gain professional development through exposure to engineering research and different teaching approaches, and the UA will be able to exhibit its research to local communities while attracting a new generation of engineering students.

Water-Energy Nexus

As the title of Ogden's program indicates, the subject area is a global problem and of critical importance to Arizona: "Water and Energy Systems: The Key to the Future of Arid and Semi-Arid Regions."

The program acknowledges that combining water and energy research is essential. "There's a strong relationship between energy and water," Odgen said. "Especially in the desert. You have to use recycled or waste water to efficiently produce energy and have a lower overall impact on the environment. On the flip side, you have to find more energy-efficient methods to move water from place to place."

Kim Ogden
Kim Ogden

Ogden's team will recruit nine fellows, who will be paid $30,000 a year plus tuition, from throughout the College of Engineering. The common denominator is that they must be involved in water and energy research. "We're taking graduate students who do water research," she said. "Civil engineers who study how water is moved efficiently from one place to another; chemical and environmental engineers who study water quality; and industrial engineers who specialize in water recycling in industry."

Other departments will be involved from the energy perspective. "The project needs mining engineers for the geothermal energy work they are doing," she said. "Plus materials science and mechanical engineers for their solar energy work, and chemical and biological engineers involved in biofuels research."

Fellow recruitment is already under way and Odgen said fellows and teachers plan to participate in a 3-week training program during the summer. "They will work on projects together that they'll implement in their classrooms," she said. "And they'll get to know each other while they work on lesson plans and schedules." Fellows will study how to work in a classroom and find out how kids learn, and teachers will learn about engineering.

After developing a lesson plan that integrates their research with the school curriculum, fellows will spend about two days a week in the classroom working with students and teachers on a project that demonstrates their research.

Ogden is UA's principal investigator for the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts, which recently got $49 million from the U.S. Department of Energy for algal biofuels and bioproducts research and development. Naturally, she expects some of the school projects will feature biofuel production.

"They could grow algae in the classroom, and take some data on how the algae are changing and growing," she said. "They will learn how biofuel is actually made. So it should be fun."

Linking Teaching and Research

This GK-12 program builds on a Research Experience for Teachers program Ogden has run for more than 10 years to expose teachers to engineering research. Since its inception in 1999, the GK-12 program has funded more than 200 projects in more than 140 different universities, and Ogden has seen first-hand how successful the program is at engaging young minds in the STEM fields. 

For example, teachers can give their students concrete examples of why they need to study math. "Teachers appreciate having someone in the classroom who actually has done engineering," Ogden said. "One of the biggest questions the kids have is why do they have to learn geometry or algebra. They think they are never going to use those things in their lives. The fellows can give them real-life examples."

The College of Engineering already has a presence in local high schools in the form of the Engineering 102 in High Schools program launched in 2009, which allows high school students to take engineering classes for credit before they actually enroll at UA. This new program will extend the College's reach into junior high schools.

Ogden explained the significance of reaching into junior highs: "Engineering 102 in high schools certainly helps us recruit students to UA, but they're already self-selected by that time," Ogden said. "When you do programs like this in junior high, you're encouraging kids to keep taking math and science because you are showing them all the cool things that engineers can do. You are helping the pipeline."

The "pipeline" is an important concept in engineering education, particularly in Tucson where local aerospace and defense contractors, Raytheon Missile Systems for example, employ thousands of engineers.

A recent article by Teya Vitu in BizTucson about Raytheon Missile Systems president Taylor Lawrence nicely summed up the importance of the pipeline. In the article Vitu quoted College of Engineering dean Jeff Goldberg: "Education is the make or break for Raytheon's future growth here. More than half of Raytheon's employees are engineers, and the University of Arizona is the largest source of those engineers, supplying nearly 750 of them in the past 10 years."

Restocking this dwindling pipeline is the basis of the GK-12 program. "That's why National Science Foundation wants to fund it," Ogden said. "They're worried about supplies of engineers and scientists and mathematicians in the future."

The UA Team

Ogden's research team on the project reflects the multidisciplinary nature and enormous scope of this particular GK-12 program. Her co-investigators include: