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With two years of planning and a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Southwestern College (SWC) chemistry professor David Brown endeavored to make the International Year of Chemistry a transformative learning experience for youngsters along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Brown traveled this fall for 30 days in a U-Haul van full of hands-on chemistry kits. He distributed the kits during presentations at schools, Boys and Girls Clubs and other community organizations along the U.S. side of the 2,000-mile international border that stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
The lessons for students and their instructors are intentionally "cool" science experiments crafted to excite interest in the tangible chemistry of water and solar power that children encounter every day.
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Brown's targeted his Project iLASER (Investigations with Light And Sustainable Energy Resources) for the economically disadvantaged Latino youngsters who reside in border towns because they are among the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population, and they live in areas with a lot of sunshine. Latinos have also historically been underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Brown hopes the focus on sustainable environmental practices will inspire students' career choices and eventually help them improve the economic conditions of their communities. (See video, below.)
"Maybe 10 years from now, when some of those children are college graduates, we will have a green economy that’s gained some traction, and they’ll be the professionals who are fueling the economy that might bring prosperity to those highly impoverished regions and transform communities and lives,” Brown said. “The goals of the International Year of Chemistry are very much about getting young people enthused about chemistry’s role in solving societal problems, getting them involved. What better way than to get their hands on chemistry?"
Cateering to a difference audience
To accomplish his goal, Brown used the same methodology and chutzpah that he had previously used to involve his SWC students in industry research projects. He is currently involved in five NSF grants and serves as an advisor to MentorLinks, the American Association of Community Colleges' NSF-supported mentoring program for community college educators.
Before submitting his iLASER proposal, Brown initiated partnerships by cold-calling eminent chemists whose work intersects with iLASER's goals and the administrators of schools, Boys and Girls Clubs and community colleges in the border towns.
Harry Gray, founding director of the Beckman Institute at the California Institute of Technology, responded to Brown's call by inviting him to meet researchers at the NSF Center for Chemical Innovation (CCI) in California. Some of center's team members were skeptical that Brown could reconfigure their solar research breakthroughs for young children. However, Gray endorsed Brown's plan.
"David is a most impressive motivational teacher," Gray wrote to the NSF after watching Brown work with a fifth grade student who was among the special invitees at a 2010 workshop for high school teachers.
Visit David Brown's Project iLASER blogBrown began his iLASER presentations by asking students about light and then involving them in hands-on science experiments. These included the CCI solar fuels program's Juice from Juice, an activity that has students extract dyes from vegetables and fruit, build dye-sensitized power cells and use the resulting energy to power small motors.
"His demonstrations really served as a platform for kids to see what could be done with science and to get excited about it," said Arturo Jaime, chief professional officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs of El Paso.
Prompted by the enthusiasm of the youngsters at the three El Paso clubs that Brown visited, the organization launched a Science Academy. Jaime said the clubs' adult leaders had talked about adding science programming for a long time but lacked the expertise to pull it off.
"We're very excited about this, and I can really point to Dr. Brown because ... he provided all the missing pieces," Arturo said.
Brown provided the curriculum and materials and introduced Jaime to Luis Echegoyen when he came to iLASER demonstrations. Echegoyen, internationally known for supramolecular and materials chemistry research, was director of the NSF's chemistry division for four years prior to joining the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP) faculty in 2010 as the Robert A. Welch Chair in Chemistry.
More than just fun
The Science Academy pilot that begins in January will allow 15 to 20 middle school students to:
The goal is to raise students' understanding of STEM and improve their performance on standardized tests. Arturo also hopes the Science Academy will eventually serve as a model that can be replicated at the 4,000 clubs that provide fun, positive activities for four million children in the U.S.
Brown plans to revisit El Paso and his other stops on the iLASER trail in spring 2012 to answer teachers' and club leaders' questions and to encourage them to continue using the kits, curriculum and materials he gave them for free.
"A big chunk of the grant was to buy these materials and equipment and plant them like Johnny Appleseed at all these strategic locations from one end of the border to the other,” he said. “I want to make sure that it’s sustainable, and [that] the people who inherit this equipment are going to be able to use it in the future."
For his work along the border, Brown has already been selected by the American Chemical Society's Committee on Environmental Improvement to receive its 2012 Award for Incorporation of Sustainability into Chemical Education.
His presentation during a plenary session at the Mexico Chemical Society annual meeting has resulted in invitations to bring the iLASER program and kits to young students in other Latin American countries.
David Brown discusses Project iLASER and his visit to an elementary school in Texas.
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