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Fueling Discussion: Kan-Can Connection Gives Young Minds Something to Think About

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Students at Glendale Elementary School in Calgary, Alberta, volunteer to ask questions of KU engineering professor Susan Williams A three-minute video on YouTube is building a bridge between researchers at the University of Kansas and fourth-graders in Canada.

Claudia Bode, outreach coordinator for the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis headquartered at KU, created and posted “Biomass? Maybe…” a short video that explores issues related to alternative fuels.

Her biomass video now serves as a springboard for greater dialogue.

Forty students at Glendale Elementary School in Calgary, Alberta, came across the KU-produced video as they researched information about biomass and biofuels for a class project.  Students at the inquiry-based learning school routinely tackle large issues.  The school’s projects encompass many subject areas, connect students to the outside world and motivate them to take up meaningful issues and ask tough questions.

“Our project is titled "Fueling the Planet" and originated with the idea of food,” said Megan Liddell, one of two fourth-grade teachers at Glendale working with CEBC and KU. “We are looking at the social, health and environmental issues surrounding food, which naturally brought us to biofuels.”  Some CEBC researchers work to develop biofuels, but also delve into the bigger picture of how to minimize impact of production and use.

“Right away we thought Claudia's video aligned so perfectly with what we had been exploring with our kids, about types of biomass and the process involved in creating biodiesel,” Liddell said.

Students at Glendale are no strangers to fuel.  Calgary – sometimes called Canada’s oil capital – and Alberta – often called the Texas of Canada – are known for their ties to petroleum production.

“What we really liked is that she laid out the pros and cons objectively and wasn't ‘promoting’ either side of the issue,” Liddell said.

Liddell and partner fourth-grade teacher Darren Vaast set up a one-hour videoconference in early March with Bode and Associate Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Susan Williams.

Seated more than 1,500 miles apart, Canadian 10-year-olds and KU researchers gazed into their face-filled computer screens and began a chat that opened eyes on each side of the Internet connection.  One at a time, the students approached the chair in front of the webcam, sat down and unleashed their question.

A Glendale fourth-grader uses a webcam to ask a question of CEBC research and KU engineering professor Susan Williams “They had really good, thoughtful questions,” said Williams who also leads KU’s Biodiesel Project, which reclaims used cooking oil from campus eateries and converts it into fuel.  The ultimate goal is to use the biodiesel to power a wide variety of vehicles and machines on the KU campus, from lawn and landscaping tractors to the KU transit system.  Knowing the region’s ties to the oil industry made the students’ extensive questioning even more amazing.

The students came up with the questions themselves, Liddell said.

“After learning about biomass, the carbon cycle, greenhouse gas emissions, and the notion of biofuels coming onto the scene, we gathered the kids together one day and asked what questions they had for Claudia and Susan,” she said.

Just what was on their inquisitive minds?

  • They wondered about the fact that biofuels are new carbon versus the old carbon contained in fossil fuels, and whether that makes a difference in the CO2 each emits when burned.
  • They had questions about how long biofuels last compared to gasoline.
  • They asked about algae as a potential feedstock.
  • They were curious about cost differences.
  • They asked how fast biofuels burn.
  • They asked why people couldn’t just put ethanol in their vehicles right now.
  • They asked how experts could come to different conclusions.

“Claudia and Susan were outstanding,” Liddell said.  “I can't say enough how much it meant to us that they would take time out of their busy workday to talk to 10-year-olds. They answered our questions thoughtfully, and most importantly, recognized them as important and challenging questions.  I loved that they told the students that some things were not answered yet, and that some of their questions were being studied right now in the research field. That really helped our kids see how this work lives in the real world beyond our school walls, and the importance of what they're doing.”

The reasoning level and probing spirit of the students made quite an impression on Bode as well.

“What was really bothering these kids is there was no cut-and-dried answer: How can experts disagree?” she said.  “They were pretty savvy little kids.”

While the videoconference represented a short, fun break from the routine, both the parties in Kansas and Canada concede there’s still more work to do. 

“We are participating in something called the Mayor's Environmental Expo here in June,” Liddell said in mid-March. “We are showcasing an educational booth about biofuels, so right now our kids are researching, learning, consulting experts and gathering opinions about biofuels in order to help prepare that educational piece.”

Bode hopes to maintain the relationship with the Glendale School and even expand her efforts to more grade levels in other schools in the United States and abroad.

And more than a week after the long-distance meeting, Williams, who also conducts feedstock-to-tailpipe research with the KU Transportation Research Institute, was still pumped.

Conducting research is rewarding, she said. Working with college students is rewarding. But having an impact on students so young and so far away was inspiring.

“That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”

 

Learn More

See what the Glendale students are doing:  www.cbe.ab.ca/b143

See what CEBC is doing:  www.cebc.ku.edu

See what KU TRI is doing:  http://www.kutri.ku.edu/

Watch the biomass video:  http://www.youtube.com/user/ClaudiaCares

 



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