Features - February 2014

Stimulating STEM: NETL’s Outreach in Focus

“Teachers are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy – problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math. Some of this change is hard…. But it’s worth it – and it’s working.”

President Barack Obama, 2014 State of the Union

STEM: Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Collectively, these fields are considered to be the core underpinnings of an advanced society. Every day, in more ways than we realize, STEM permeates our lives.

We understand the natural world we inhabit, from the oceans that border our country to the stars that dot our skies, through the lens of science.  We access the virtual world that surrounds us through technology, our computers and smartphones; but those accomplishments are built upon centuries of innovation, from astrolabes to the wheel. We rely on engineering to transport us on roadways and through the sky, to build our cities, and produce the power that keeps our lights on. We find mathematics in our grocery bills, sports statistics, and the time we wait at the red light on our commute home. STEM shapes our world: our present and our future.

In order to design the future, it is imperative that STEM education is treated, not just as a vital initiative, but as a functional reality.

STEM education increases scientific literacy, creates critical thinkers, and provides the tools for the next generation of innovators to take their place in the world. Innovation is what drives new processes and products that sustain our economy, and innovation critically depends on excellence in STEM arenas. A successful STEM education provides students and teaching professionals with the knowledge and skills to keep our nation on the forefront of scientific, medical, and engineering advancement and ensures that the United States remains competitive in the global economy.

At the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), our primary mission is to provide for the robustness of America’s energy future: Advancing energy options to fuel our economy, strengthen our security, and improve our environment. NETL is demonstrating not only a deep commitment to research and development, but also an investment in people. In particular, we are invested in providing a range of STEM opportunities and initiatives for our nation’s students and teachers.

NETL demonstrates our commitment to education through workshops, instructional materials, tours, community outreach, and special events. The goal of this Educational Outreach Program is to enhance the development of the next generation of STEM professionals by providing students with hands-on learning opportunities and providing professional development opportunities for middle and high school teachers.

Engaging Educators

 Teachers tour the Polymer Synthesis Laboratory at NETL. Keeping science teachers up to date on current science is an excellent way of encouraging enthusiasm for STEM in the classroom.
 Teachers tour the Polymer Synthesis Laboratory at NETL. Keeping science teachers up to date on current science is an excellent way of encouraging enthusiasm for STEM in the classroom.

NETL provides teachers and education professionals multiple resources in their continuing quest to maintain and improve their STEM skill sets. By hosting hands-on workshops, partnering with professional organizations, and distributing material at educational conferences, NETL’s outreach program has developed multiple strategies for servicing regional educators. Some of the opportunities NETL facilitates are—

  • NETL holds an annual 2-day workshop known as the Triple E Seminar (short for Energy, Environment, and Economics). We hold this seminar at NETL’s Pittsburgh site and offer it free of charge to all teachers, kindergarten through 6th grade. Since its inception in 1991, almost 750 elementary teachers from Allegheny and surrounding counties have participated. The teachers receive 10 professional education hours toward their continuing education credit requirements, and acquire hands-on, classroom friendly experiments to take back to their schools.
  • NETL partners with the Pittsburgh Regional Center for Science Teachers (PRCST) to host a workshop for the STEM Education series. The series provides opportunities for teachers to explore and experience STEM jobs by speaking with researchers at NETL and touring multiple laboratories on site. This workshop is designed to guide educators by building on their knowledge of math and science in order to better equip them to lead their students into the future of technology.
  • With the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh (SSP), NETL hosts Light, Color & Spectroscopy for Kids, a seminar for elementary and middle school teachers aimed at introducing children to the science of light. SSP developed this seminar, which the Society of Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh (SACP) cosponsors.
  • NETL also hosts a computer software workshop for high school chemistry and physics teachers offered by SACP. Teachers are tutored on data manipulation software, physics laboratory simulation software, and simulation and classroom programs. The workshop is computer-based and all software is up to date, user friendly, and well adapted for the science classroom, science laboratory, or homework assignments, and the teachers are given copies of the software to take back to their students.

Students and STEM

There are many types of invisible ink, from heat activated to chemically triggered. But all are a guaranteed success in the classroom. 
There are many types of invisible ink, from heat activated to chemically triggered. But all are a guaranteed success in the classroom.

Providing skilled and knowledgeable teachers is paramount to bringing enthusiasm for STEM fields to the classroom. Engaging students early in science is vital to propelling them into STEM careers. Hands-on and minds-on opportunities that move a student through the “why’s” of scientific investigation to the “eureka!” moment of understanding, are essential for guiding youths into a love of learning. NETL’s outreach program targets that “eureka” moment in the classroom, the moment that will foster a lifelong interest in STEM.  Here’s how:

  • Science Lab Days are an important facet of NETL’s school involvement. Staffed by volunteers from NETL, the Lab Days bring hands-on science to students between kindergarten and 8th grade at local schools. With simple experiments that teach complex concepts— from the power of ultraviolet light to understanding diffusion through scent—Lab Days make science accessible. At the request of regional schools, the outreach program facilitates nine to 10 Lab Days per year, with easy classroom experiments designed to augment classroom curriculums.
  • Dedicated as part of its hundred- year celebration, NETL designed and maintains the Energy Challenge exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center. An interactive kiosk, the game quizzes players on sources of energy, the science behind energy, and ways to use it wisely in daily life. The questions are written to be appropriate for the player’s age and are designed to conform to the national teaching standards for science. Since its installation, the exhibit has been consistently rated as one of the most popular at the Science Center.
  • NETL holds an annual Earth Day poster competition for students in kindergarten through 5th grade. The poster competition is meant to emphasize the importance of recycling, conserving energy, and improving air quality. The contest encourages students to learn about these topics so they can design appropriately themed posters.
 Played in a round-robin tournament format, the Science Bowl is extremely competitive. Only the winning regional team gets to move forward to the National Science Bowl held in early May in the Washington, DC.
Played in a round-robin tournament format, the Science Bowl is extremely competitive. Only the winning regional team gets to move forward to the National Science Bowl held in early May in Washington, DC.

Quite possibly the most well-known NETL outreach effort is the Science Bowl. The Energy Department began the National Science Bowl in 1991, and NETL has been hosting regional qualifying competitions since that time. NETL facilitates three regional Science Bowls: the West Virginia Regional Science Bowl (WVSB) for high school students and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Science Bowl (SWPA), which hosts a competition for high school students and another for middle school students. The Science Bowl is a highly competitive academic competition that tests the science and math skills of high school and middle school students. Science Bowl teams are composed of four student players and a teacher who serves as the team’s advisor and coach. Teams compete in a timed forum to provide correct answers to science and math questions. The event showcases each team’s skills and encourages student interest in future careers in science and mathematics.  The winners of the NETL -sponsored Science Bowls go on to compete against winning teams from 70 regional competitions held across the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  NETL’s Science Bowls are entirely staffed through volunteer efforts and have grown significantly since they were initiated in the ‘90s. This year, the WVSB hosted 23 high school teams, and the SWPA science bowl is hosting 57 high schools and 34 middle schools in the February competitions.

Legacy of Learning

Science and technology is the life-blood of NETL. It is vital to our mission that we continue to foster learning within our regional communities and throughout our nation. Providing students and teachers experience with STEM resources is a critical component to developing the next generation of STEM professionals and a diverse energy workforce as well as a future full of innovation.