EnLiST Grant at the University of Illinois Supports Science and Technology Education

When high school sophomore Ana Hernandez proposed her science fair project about biodiesel emissions, she had not planned on launching a suite of biodiesel processors for other Chicago Public Schools and The Museum of Science and Industry. Fueled by physics teacher Brian Sievers’ innovation and a desire to change the world, the Whitney M. Young Magnet High School student teamed up with four classmates to do that and more.

With skills garnered from a University of Illinois sponsored grant, EnLiST, Sievers coached Hernandez and the student team into developing an outreach project beyond the classroom and into the community. The students call themselves Whitney Young Biodiesel HEROES – or Helping to Engender Renewable Organic Energy Sources.

Armed with buckets, panty hose, and vats of used cooking oil, the students have filtered more than 1,200 gallons of used oil into more than 130 gallons of golden biodiesel to fuel anything from a go-cart to a VW Jetta. They have collaborated with engineering professors and graduate students at the University of Illinois in Chicago and plan to visit Argonne National Laboratory, one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s oldest and largest national laboratories for science and engineering research. At Argonne, the team hopes to conduct an analysis of the composition of their biodiesel to evaluate its specifications and performance.

While the research component is crucial, Sievers said his training as a fellow in the Entrepreneurial Leadership in STEM Teaching and Learning (EnLiST) program helped hone his networking skills, which have landed the HEROES group new connections and research partners.

EnLiST is a 5 year, 5 million dollar National Science Foundation Grant now in its third year. The aim of the project is exactly what is helping drive Sievers’ success: to provide professional development opportunities for high school physics and chemistry teachers, who then take an entrepreneurial edge back to the classroom. The University of Illinois provides significant leadership, according to co-principal investigator, Fouad Abd-El-Khalick.

EnLiST is a massive project with a whole team of scientists, educators, engineers, and researchers working with science teachers to help them develop entrepreneurial skills that would enable them to transform the way students experience science learning,” said Abd-El-Khalick, who is a professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois. Abd-El-Khalick works with project director, Anita Martin, who teaches the pedagogy aspect of EnLiST’s summer institute.

“Brian Sievers, an EnLiST Teacher Fellow, exemplifies the sort of entrepreneurial teachers that the project aims to develop. Brian has been successful in marshaling all sort of resources, both financial and human, to transform the ways in which his students experience science learning while simultaneously undertaking a significant social agenda. Brian’s students, many of whom are active participants in their collective entrepreneurial undertaking, speak to the ways in which their experiences have changed their attitudes toward, and commitment to science learning and pursuing STEM studies in the future.”

Through his engagement with EnLiST, we saw Brian developing the collaborative and leadership skills that enable him to facilitate the development of other teachers along these entrepreneurial lines,” Abd-El-Khalick said. “His projects now feature increasingly wider networks of collaborators with more ambitious goals and enriched experiences and engagement for his and others’ students.”

As an Illinois graduate of mechanical engineering, Sievers marks this as his third year as an EnLiST participant. His past EnLiST projects have included humanitarian efforts for Haiti. He continues to brainstorm ways to enhance quality of life, incorporating students as key players. Martin said Sievers’ collaborative skills help his student garner laurels for their dedication.

“Brian is sharing his ideas and his expertise with other teachers, other students, other districts, and other organizations,” Martin said. “He won the Lexus Eco Challenge in 2009; helped Mother McAuley students win it again in 2010; and is now at Whitney Young and attempting to help these students win it.”

In addition to research, the students have added a service component to their efforts by supplying local farmers with the clear-burning fuel. They are also donating biodiesel to run the “Fresh Moves Mobile Produce Market,” an outfitted CTA bus, which brings fresh produce to urban areas of Chicago lacking in access to fruits and veggies. The club’s initial donation will be 105 gallons, with hopes of increasing that amount.

“This project is also about community service as much as it is research,” Sievers said, adding that the students built a full-scale biodiesel production system for the Museum of Science and Industry. “The students unveiled their display and spent the day informing visitors about how to make biodiesel, the benefits of biodiesel, and demonstrated how to make biodiesel in a 2-Liter bottle.”

Other public interactions include presentations at the Peggy Notebart Museum, where the Biodiesel Club has an art-board display describing their project.

“Brian has changed the lives of his students. Some are going into STEM fields who were not originally planning on that,” Martin said. “Brian has become an ambassador for kids. The focus is off of him and on the students. It is remarkable the change in Brian and his influence on people all over Chicagoland.”

In efforts to spread the word about their work, the students pitch stories to the media, upkeep a website about the project at www.wyheroes.tk, and encourage friends to “like” Whitney Young Biodiesel on Facebook.

As for Hernandez’s science project? She conducted testing at an Illinois Department of Transportation facility. By measuring emissions from a VW Jetta, she compared biodiesel to the cooking oil and found an 80% reduction in emissions when cooking oil was used. Sievers credits Hernandez’ initial brainstorm with fueling interest in the Whitney Young Biodiesel HEROES.

“This group of high school students is learning that they and alternative fuels, like biodiesel, can make a difference in the environment,” Sievers said. “A new generation, a new fuel.”