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Summer collaborations bring WashU research labs alive for area high school teachers

“Science is something we do.”

For longtime high school science teacher David Ganey, the key to engaging students in a deeper understanding of science in the real world lies in focusing on what they can see, touch and feel.

“What exactly does an environmental scientist do?” he asks. “You can tell students about it, or you can show them and then challenge them to work as an environmental engineer.”

Davd Ganey and Kimberly Parker

Ganey has found an ally in Kimberly Parker, Assistant Professor in the Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. The two paired up over the summer through the University’s Teacher Researcher Partnership Program, which is designed specifically to provide opportunities for faculty to connect in meaningful ways with educators in the broader community.  Both are eager to make science inquiry come alive for students.

“I’m an environmental engineer and a chemist, but I wear many hats,” says Parker. “When I was in high school, I didn’t even know my field existed. I like the possibility of reaching larger groups of students through the lessons David and I are creating together. Working on a project like this  also helps everyone in our lab learn how to better explain our work to the broader community, so we can have important conversations with audiences from different backgrounds and experiences with science.”

For Ganey, donning a lab coat and goggles to join Parker in the lab on the Danforth campus throughout the summer has only enhanced what he will be able to bring back to his students at Maplewood Richmond Heights High School, where he teaches courses in AP environmental Science and Exploring Environmental Sustainability.

“Being a part of this program helps me become a more effective teacher,” adds Ganey. “I’m learning something I would actually use in my classroom, and eventually, other teachers will be able to use it as well. Kim is an environmental engineer, and I need to expose my kids to what she does. It’s a real job, this is why it matters, and this is how you get there.”

So what, exactly is the work?

Parker and Ganey’s end product will be a hands-on series of lessons that give students an inside look at how agricultural practices such as using synthetic fertilizers and genetically modified crops affect the safety and sustainability of food production. Specifically, they’ll lean into herbicide drift, a phenomenon that happens when herbicide is applied to one field and drifts to another area or fields it’s not intended for.

The good news is that an additive has been developed that locks herbicide down, preventing the volatile chemical reaction from spreading in the air. To demonstrate the processes that make the additive work, Parker and Ganey are using basics from the kitchen: cabbage, vinegar and baking soda. 

“There are big environmental impacts of herbicide drift that we need to avoid,” says Parker. “The lessons we’re developing will allow students to explore basic chemistry concepts while applying them to a real world problem–improving the safety using herbicides.” 

Bridging Academia and the Real World

Reaching high school students living and learning within Washington University’s geographic footprint is also a priority for Ulugbek Kamilov, assistant professor and director of the Computational Imaging Group (CIG).  

“The university students who work in my group are very international,” says Kamilov. “I want to engage and contribute to local education, in hopes of addressing the supply problem our region has for individuals equipped to meet current and emerging needs. Developing local talent that would stay in the region would be great progress.”

Breaking down misconceptions about what’s possible to those who pursue post-graduate work is part of the critical message he hopes to deliver, by example. 

“Having a PhD doesn’t mean you are locked into an academic career if you don’t want to be,” adds Kamilov, who enjoyed working in industry as a research scientist himself first.  “It was a very fulfilling position with lots of open-ended questions. It was up to me to break down the high-level tasks. The way I figured out so much about the field was by engaging in real problem-solving.”

Kamilov plans to bring area high school students to campus for workshops over the next three summers to explore concepts that introduce CIG’s work in digital image processing using machine learning: images, algorithms and artificial intelligence. To design experiences that will resonate with this younger audience of learners, he needed an expert in high school learners. 

Drew McAllister and Ulugbek Kamilov

With support from the Institute for School Partnership (ISP), which serves as administrator for the Teacher Researcher Partnership Program, Kamilov found the perfect partner in Drew McAllister.

McAllister, a program director for the Spark Program in the Parkway and Rockwood School Districts, focuses his energies on creating learning experiences that connect juniors and seniors with interests in technology to real-world applications by collaborating with local businesses. 

When Spark students indicated that they wanted practical experiences with machine learning, McAllister was glad to land on the opportunity to work with Kamilov, who is encouraging him to think big and make the most of all the University’s resources.

“I love what Bek is telling me,” he says. “What we’re creating together is going to help high school students understand how they can leverage the abundance of digital data to solve real world problems.”

Making science study relevant, even urgent

Science teacher Marina Smallwood would jump at the chance to work again with Peng Bai, assistant professor in the University’s  Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering Department.

Marina Smallwood

For Smallwood, who holds an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and completed her master’s degree at Washington University, coming back to campus over the summer felt a bit like coming home.

“An experience like this feeds my energy and desire to be better,” she says. “Every time I teach thermochemistry, I learn it on a deeper level, and I’m able to explain it to my students.”

Smallwood teaches 11th grade physics and AP chemistry at John Burroughs School and is looking forward to developing lessons that will engage students in precision understanding of hidden battery dynamics. By working in Bai’s lab, she had the opportunity to learn computer simulations that teach chemical and physical concepts such as equilibrium and nucleation.

Sound challenging? It is. But it’s just that difficulty that Smallwood and Bai hope to penetrate by demonstrating to students how relevant the research is to the real world. Significant for their ability to power a wide variety of electronic devices, batteries are essential to modern life and will be critical for a sustainable future.

“Students are feeling the urgency of sustainability issues, which makes what we’re learning in those fields important,” says Smallwood. 

Bai, who also partnered with Ft. Zumwalt teacher Melissa Bouquet over the summer, agrees, and believes reaching students before they start college has long-term value.

“As a professor, I feel it’s my natural responsibility to promote the scientific literacy of our community and inspire more students to pursue STEM-relevant/-enriched careers,” says Bai. “If I can help high school teachers by hosting them to do research in my lab, they can pass on the experience, insights, and knowledge to many more students for many more years.” 

Bai appreciates being among colleagues who share a commitment to impact beyond campus. 

“Many of us share the vision of making our university and local community a diverse, inclusive, welcoming, and nurturing place. Participating in this effort encourages the local community to feel that WashU is their own university, lowering the barrier for them to reach our state-of-the-art STEM resources. When they get the chance to engage in such activities, they may have a life-changing experience, “ says Bai.

Peng Bai

The lessons created by Bai and Smallwood will cover physics and chemistry concepts that Marina will test on students come second semester, when they would naturally be taking on thermochemistry. But for Bai, there’s something of value beyond the actual lessons she’ll have to share with her classes.

“I was impressed by Marina’s  enthusiasm and commitment to the project,” says Bai. “The most important thing is to pass on her excitement about the battery research and about fundamental research to her students, intriguing and inspiring them.”

The Teacher Researcher Partnership Program is administered with support from the Institute for School Partnership at Washington University (ISP). During the summer of 2022, the following faculty members also participated in the program: Doug Chalker (working with teacher Anne Deken of the Forsyth School and Courtney Hausner of the Mehlville School District); Kenneth Olsen (working with Maplewood Richmond Heights School District’s Chuck McWilliams); Mark Meacham (working with Cheris Whitney from Jennings Special School District); and Jai Rudra (working with Ft. Zumwalt District teacher Erin Cooper). 

The ISP provides campus-wide support for WashU faculty to develop partnership and outreach opportunities with St. Louis area schools.

 Learn more about ISP’s support of faculty engagement in the community.