Tapping into a goal of providing collaborative learning in our S-STEM scholarship grant, our scholars were challenged to submit a research proposal to the EPA p3 Sustainable Design project. ("p3" stands for "people, planet, and prosperity".) Different teams that included students in the biotechnology, environmental sciences, engineering, and geological sciences programs developed their own ideas for a research proposal during fall of 2013. Following team presentations of their research proposals to their peers, our scholars voted on which project they wanted to submit, using feasability, potential impact, and commercial viability that the project might have on society. The winning team proposed to study the use of solar rays to sanitize household greywater to meet city, county, and state regulations for reuse for residential irrigation.
The proposal was submitted and accepted. Funds arrived, and work began in fall of 2014. While engineering and environmental sciences students designed various prototypes of solar sanitizers, biotech students worked out a synthetic greywater recipe and a dilution plating method of detecting death by solar rays. The project rapidly culminated with six students traveling to present at a competitive poster session in the April 2015 Sustainable Design Expo outside of Washington DC. Although pretty intimidated on the first day of the Expo by the grad students and tier I university students that they were competing against, our S-STEM scholars really got their act together for the second round of poster presentations. To their amazement, they were given an "honorable mention" award for their work on the third day, along with Cornell University!
These students learned many valuable lessons during this project, and one of the top challenges that they learned to overcome were the problems encountered in teamwork, especially when working with people outside of your own field. They needed to learn to set up a timeline for their project in order to meet deadlines and goals. The EPA project provided special training in communication by teleconferences with an NPR reporter on how to get your message across quickly and to someone unfamiliar with your work. And the confidence-building of a successful project was very big with these students. It was a real adventure for them!
Evidence that this project has also given our students an advantage in the job market comes for students reporting back about job interviews. Not only did they get interviews with some of the top companies in Austin, they reported ENJOYING the interview because the questions were about their research project. Not only did they feel totally comfortable talking about their work, they knew the background information about their project very well. So, not only did the research project on their resume get them the better job interviews, it helped them to go on to get their dream jobs!
So, my message is that it need not be a real sophisticated project that can give our students valuable skills, and there are funding opportunities such as this one through the EPA that we can tap into to provide research opportunities for our students.
Students grabbing samples for field-testing solar disinfection prototypes.
Engineering and environmental students discuss the parameters in their solar sanitation design.
We and Cornell University! S-STEM scholarship students presenting from ACC are Kevin Strickland (biotech), Ben Jeffrey (Environmental Sciences), Kristine Lilly (Environmental Sciences), and Beth Savercool (Physics).