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Connecting Biofuels to the Classroom

Friday, October 15, 2010

Giving Kansas teachers a taste of research helps engage their students in real-world scientific inquiry.

alan gleue Ask Alan Gleue, physics teacher at Lawrence High School, how he spent his summer and you’re likely to hear that he played with fire.     

“Actually, we researched how fuel burns, and found that biodiesel burns much cleaner and longer than regular diesel,” said Gleue.

Gleue was one of nine teachers who participated in a Research Experiences for Teachers program at the University of Kansas known as “Shaping Inquiry from Feedstock-to-Tailpipe,” or SHIFT. 

The SHIFT program pays high school and community college teachers to work with KU faculty for six weeks in the summer.  The purpose is to engage teachers in research on different aspects of renewable fuels – from how they are made to how they burn in vehicles and impact the environment. 

The teachers also transformed their research projects into innovative lessons to take back to their classrooms.  The idea is that students will be more motivated to learn basic science concepts if they are connected to an engaging and relevant real-world issue. 

The SHIFT program is funded for the next two years by the National Science Foundation.  It is organized by KU faculty and staff from the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, the Biodiesel Initiative and the Transportation Research Institute (TRI).

The program also has strong ties with the Southeast Kansas Education Service Center in Greenbush, Kansas, which has been offering K-12 services across the state for three decades.


Reaching Near and Far Across State of Kansas

The SHIFT program recruits science teachers from all Kansas high schools and community colleges, both urban and rural populations.  The first year of the program involved nine participants from eastern and southern parts of the state.   Plans are underway to involve more instructors from western schools. 

Meet the Teachers and Their Projects

Feedstock Production Team: 
Mary Criss, Wichita North High School, Wichita, KS
Michael Hotz, Wyandotte High School, Kansas City, KS
Sharon McCue, Wichita Northeast Magnet High School, Wichita, KS
Faculty Mentors - Val Smith, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Belinda Sturm, Assistant Professor of Environmental Engineering

Three high school biology teachers investigated how natural oils from algae can be used to produce biodiesel.  These teachers created a variety of lessons about pond water algae, including:

Biofuel Production Team: 
Troy Criss, Wichita Northeast Magnet High School, Wichita, KS
Jo McCormick, Washington High School, Kansas City, KS
Faculty Mentor - Susan Williams, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering, Director for the KU Biodiesel Initiative, and Principal Investigator for the RET program

Two high school chemistry teachers investigated how different renewable starting materials, such as soybean oil and used cooking oil, are chemically converted into biodiesel.  These teachers created the following lessons and activitiesThese teachers also linked the lesson to the recent BP oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico to emphasize the importance of finding alternative fuels.


Biofuel Performance Team:
Greg Bacon, Pratt Community College, Pratt, KS
Alan Gleue, Lawrence High School, Lawrence, KS
Faculty Mentors - Christopher Depcik, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and Edward Peltier, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

A community college instructor and a high school physics teacher investigated how different biofuels combust in vehicles.  They also modified a remote control car to run on biofuel and analyzed pollution emissions from burning different fuels.  These teachers created the following lessons, which are described in detail on Gleue’s class website:

A Short Introduction to Thermodynamics
Creating Pressure Volume Diagrams with a Syringe and a Vacuum Gauge
Dirty Burn: Particulate Matter and Soot Collection
Light ‘em up:  Combustion of Fuels

Ecosystem Impacts Team:

Steven Giambrone, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, KS
Lori Train, Topeka High School, Topeka, KS
Faculty Mentors - Sharon Billings, Associate Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology, and Nathaniel Brunsell, Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Science

A community college biology teacher and a high school environmental science investigated ecosystem impacts from burning fuels – both fossil and renewable sources.  These teachers created the following lessons, which links biofuels to the growing environmental threat of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide.


--Story by Claudia Bode

CEBC Calendar

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