By Matthew Chin

Energy takes work. Hard work, and a lot of it, in fact. That’s the starting point in the EnGen Roadshow, a presentation to Los Angeles-area high school science classes created by several UCLA graduate students in engineering and the sciences.

Through the use of several demonstrations, including a hand-crank generator, a steam engine, photovoltaic cell, and even a mini-hydroelectric generator, the graduate students begin a discussion on where different sources of energy come from; the technologies and efficiency of converting them to a more useful form of electricity; then finally, the environmental impacts that they each have.

The students are all fellows in UCLA’s Clean Green Integrative Graduate Education Research Traineeship, a National Science Foundation-funded program that aims to develop leaders in environmental energy through integrated research and coursework in the science, business and policies of clean technology. The interdisciplinary program includes engineers, as well as chemists, economists, statisticians and public policy students. Designing a program to educate K-12 students on clean energy is part of the program’s mission.

Additional funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act requires a program with impact on the future of green technology in greater Los Angeles. The CGI fellows decided to focus their efforts at the high school level.

“Many of us felt that we were not exposed to the fundamentals of clean energy in high school and we hoped to make students aware of energy issues as they are beginning to seriously contemplate their future career paths,” said CGI fellow Leland Smith, a materials science and engineering graduate student. “We hoped to show the relevance of math and science education on real world problems.”

So far, the group has presented to three high schools, including Bell Gardens High School; Alexander Hamilton High in Los Angeles, and Redondo Union High in Redondo Beach.

At Hamilton, the fellows gave their talks in teacher Dina A. Kraemer’s Advanced Placement environmental sciences classes. Her course is geared to helping students discover strong connections between science, technology and public policy issues.

“I cannot emphasize enough the power of 20-something grad students presenting,” Kraemer said. “The kids are mesmerized by individuals that are close in age and see their future in them.”

At the front of the classroom, the fellows had high school students try a hand-crank generator or lifting a bucket of water overhead for hydroelectric power, both of which connect to an LED that lights up when it receives electricity. But for the students, turning the crank or lifting that bucket starts to become difficult after a minute. And that’s the exactly what the UCLA graduate students want, as it shows just how much work it takes to convert even a little bit of potential energy into the more useful form of electricity.

Following the demonstrations, the CGI fellows discuss the many types of energy sources, as well as their effects on the environment. Many of the high schoolers’ questions ask where clean and renewable energy currently stands and when it will become more readily available.

“Our energy consumption comes at a price, and it is up to us as a society to determine what that price should be,” said Joshua Shapiro, a Clean Green IGERT Fellow and an electrical engineering graduate student. “We believe that by educating about where electricity comes from and the real costs associated with producing electricity, people will become more prudent consumers of energy.”

While the lessons are intended to benefit the students they present to, it’s been a positive learning experience for them as well.

“As grad students we spend a lot of time thinking about the fine details of energy technology and talking with people who have a deep knowledge of the problem,” Smith said. “It becomes easy to take for granted that people have a high level of understanding of these issues. It is entirely different to speak with people who know high school science, but not much more about clean energy. As tomorrow’s leaders in clean energy, this is an invaluable experience for the CGI fellows.”

In addition to the outreach component, the CGI faculty members have developed two graduate clean energy courses designed to spur discussion and collaboration between the fellows. The topics include policy, economics, energy harvesting, storage, and conservation.  The classes are cross-listed and available to all graduate students.

“One of the premises of our program is to assemble a broad-range of disciplines all involved in clean energy,” said electrical engineering professor Diana Huffaker, director of the Clean Green IGERT and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute. “It is at the interface of standard disciplines that innovation can come about.”

More about the Clean Green IGERT Fellowship Program, including contact information, can be found at: http://cleanenergy.ucla.edu/.

Main Image: Clean Green IGERT Fellow Joshua Shapiro demonstrates solar thermal energy.