Thursday, June 2, 2011

Farming for Fuels Program reaches Thousands of Students

More than 34,000 youngsters, teachers and parents around the country have had a chance to learn about bioenergy through hands-on experiments that are part of an outreach effort by the Department of Energy's BioEnergy Science Center.
In collaboration with the Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga, Tenn., BESC staff at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Georgia developed lesson plans aimed at children in fourth, fifth and sixth grades. The program, called "Farming for Fuels," teaches students basic concepts such as the carbon cycle, the use of lignocellulosic biomass as substrate for the production of biofuels and the technical and economic obstacles to a bio-based fuel economy.
"We have incorporated hands-on experimental work stations that allow students to understand fundamentals of the complex nature of plant cell walls, the issues affecting the use of food vs. non-food crops to produce biofuels such as ethanol, and the mechanical differences between cars run by hydrogen, solar and wind power," said Sue Kral, director of Outreach activities at the Creative Discovery Museum and part of the BESC team.
In the 800-plus school classroom sessions or 60 family science nights conducted over the last two years, students and their parents had a chance to learn the differences between annual crops like corn and perennial crops like switchgrass and discuss why perennials are more sustainable.
Another activity involves testing the sugar content of different liquid and discussing how yeast ferment the sugar into ethanol for biofuels. Students and their parents also got to use a microscope and see the differences between plant cells with their thick cell walls of cellulose and animal cells with thin cell membranes. These lesson plans and a "kitchen science" version of the lessons are posted on the BESC Web site:
"It is gratifying to see the children and their parents and teachers so excited about the science," said Janet Westpheling, BESC activity lead for Education and Outreach. "A real benefit of the program is to introduce these concepts in a context that not only informs the public but makes it fun."
BESC piloted the program with the Creative Discovery Museum and then expanded the effort with regional museums and centers in the Southeast in the first two years, including partners at East Tennessee Discovery Center in Knoxville, Tenn., the Hands On Regional Museum in Johnson City, Tenn., the Lichterman Nature Center and the Pink Palace in Memphis, Adventure Science Center in Nashville, Tellus Northwest Georgia Science Museum in Cartersville, Ga., and the National Science Center in Augusta, Ga.
In 2010, the program was expanded with museums from six other states - Texas, Michigan, Illinois, Florida, New York and Arizona and these museums will act as hubs for national outreach.
"The combination of educators, museums, university and national laboratory staff have allowed this program to be successful," said Brian Davison of ORNL's Bioscience Division.
BESC is one of three DOE Bioenergy Research Centers established by the DOE's Office of Science in 2007. The centers support multidisciplinary, multi-institutional research teams pursuing the fundamental scientific breakthroughs needed to make production of cellulosic biofuels, or biofuels from nonfood plant fiber, cost-effective on a national scale. The centers are led by ORNL, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in partnership with Michigan State University.

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