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Summer Program Attracts Future Biofuels Students to Old Dominion

For doctoral engineering students, it was a unique experience on the other side of the mentorship ledger. For five local high school students with aspirations of studying alternative fuels, it was a one-of-a-kind experience learning in an award-winning university laboratory.

For four weeks this summer, the high school students worked in the Biofuels Laboratory of Old Dominion University's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology. Graduate students in the laboratory working under Sandeep Kumar, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, ran the month-long Biofuels Apprenticeship Program.

It was a challenge for the doctoral students to convey complex material to high school students who, although very bright, are less likely to learn from lectures.

"I was honestly kind of scared before the program started," said Ashani Samaratunga, who will begin her doctorate in civil and environmental engineering this fall at Old Dominion. "This kind of gave me experience of what an academic career would be like. I enjoyed it!"

Ali Teymouri, a civil and environmental engineering Ph.D. student originally from Iran, said it was challenging taking complex bioscience materials and breaking them down into concepts high schoolers could understand.

"For the first couple of days I was very serious. But I thought it might be better, after a while, to work in a joke in between, and try to make the discussions more fun," Teymouri said.

The graduate student instructors also hit on a magic formula with the high school achievers - make the course modules into competitions. So, as part of their four-week curriculum, the high school students cultured their own algae, and went through the process of converting it into biofuels.

"It made the students really excited to come in every day and check on their algae. They were responsible for keeping their algae alive and for testing their growth," Samarantunga said. At the same time, she continued, the students were learning research methods, responsible research conduct and thinking about problems in new ways.

"I learned a lot from teaching these students this summer. Working with high school kids is a very unique teaching experience," Teymouri said.

The National Science Foundation-funded Biofuels Apprenticeship brings up to five highly motivated high school students to the Biofuels Lab for the month of July to gain an introduction to this field of renewable energy.

Students participate in hands-on lab work, get small group instruction on lab techniques and an overview of the field of biofuels. They also see demonstrations of cutting-edge research being done by the Biofuels Lab group. Modeled on a traditional apprenticeship, the students learn as they do real research lab work and are awarded a stipend at the end of the program.

The program was funded as part of the five-year National Science Foundation Early Faculty Career Development (CAREER) Award received by Kumar in 2013.

Kumar will receive five years of financial support totaling $401,315 for his research into alternative energy and nutrients management, and his efforts in STEM education at ODU.

Kumar came to the University in 2010 after earning a Ph.D. at Auburn University, and has built a strong presence in the research of biofuels, along with his team at the Biofuels Laboratory. The lab is part of a growing Energy Cluster in the College of Engineering, with researchers working on multidisciplinary projects designed to help the nation's energy security.

A new hydrothermal pretreatment for oilseeds developed by Sergiy Popov, a recent Ph.D. graduate from the Batten College, eliminates several costly and energy-intensive processes and has improved oil extraction yield compared to existing methods. This work, which comprised Popov's doctoral dissertation, was recently published in the journal "Renewable Energy."

Teymouri and Caleb Talbot, another graduate student in the laboratory, fine-tuned a form of nutrient recycling in algae cultivation, allowing as much as a 50 percent reduction in nutrient input costs for algae production with equivalent growth rates.

The lab is also a popular destination for tours by local high school students.

The NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award Program provides five years of financial support for junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. Such activities should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.

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