Research group teaches Grade 5 students about clean energy – with algae!

[Canada] When it comes to getting 10-year-olds excited about science, one research group has found that the key is green slime.

Christine Sharp, a postdoctoral researcher in the Energy Bioengineering Group, and her supervisor Marc Strous co-founded the startup Solar Biocells which uses an entirely new, cost-effective, scalable, and sustainable concept for capturing and converting carbon dioxide (CO2) into biomass. Their process uses micro-organisms, like algae or cyanobacteria, which naturally process energy from sunlight and take up CO2 from the atmosphere, to grow biomass in a bioreactor. The biomass, in turn, can be converted to clean energy like methane, a liquid fuel, or biomass pellets.

Sharp, Cañon-Rubio, and Urquhart harvest algae from the bioreactors.

Together with research assistant Karen Cañon-Rubio, and undergraduate student Zachary Urquhart, Strous and Sharp have taken their bioreactors to class — a Grade 5 classroom, specifically — where they are piloting a new educational program called Fixing the Atmosphere as part of a research project funded by a Canada Accelerator and Incubator Program (CAIP) Chair to Strous and the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF). The bioreactors, which grew green algae over the course of three weeks, fascinated the students, who developed a new appreciation for, and interest in clean energy.

Interdisciplinary collaboration delivers valuable learning

Preparing to get the bioreactors into the classroom was a multi-step, collaborative process. “The KICS program got us into the classroom,” says Sharp. The Kinetica Innovation Centre at SAIT (KICS), a collaboration between SAIT, Innovate Calgary, and the University of Calgary, is a facility and program that helps clean energy technology startups and researchers design, prototype and test their proprietary technologies. “KICS helped us build the first kid-safe prototype to go into the schools. The way the bioreactors in the lab might have screws and small parts and we designed the new bioreactors with the same principle but a different model for the kids to use — one with locks, no exposed wiring, nothing anyone could get their fingers stuck in! That was also part of the challenge,” Cañon-Rubio explains.

Postdoctoral Fellow in the Energy Bioengineering Group Christine Sharp, Research Assistant Karen Andrea Canon-Rubio, and undergraduate student Zack Urquhart have been bringing bioreactors into elementary school classrooms.

“The first time we went to the Grade 5 class, part of the research was evaluating how well the research package actually resonated with the students — how they actually learned and connected some of the things they learned in school to what they see in real life,” she says. “For that part, we worked with Bonnie Shapiro, professor at the Werklund School of Education. She’s been instrumental in supporting our developments from the educational perspective.” The educational package also included educational posters, guides, and online material.

The class was given two bioreactors, and was tasked with operating and taking care of them for the three-week period. “It was a good opportunity for the students to have hands-on experience. They were able to influence the experiment instead of just hearing about it. They could touch these things, and watch the algae grow in the classroom,” says Urquhart.

“We encouraged them to think about all the different variables that could affect the algae growth. We wanted to instill in them the idea that they were the scientists, and they were in control.”

Their approach worked. The students provided insightful feedback at each classroom visit, so the researchers prepared something for the next visit based on what the students wanted to learn about. Many of the parents also wanted to learn more about the project.

“It really sparked their minds to thinking about science. We took a lot from the students’ questions to help us continue developing the program,” says Cañon-Rubio. “It was as much of a learning experience for us as it was for them,” Urquhart adds.

Program likely to expand through the next school year

The group hopes to scale up Fixing the Atmosphere by providing 10 schools with 20 bioreactors by the spring of 2018. They plan to create a standardized package that includes their current material plus more interactive features, such as videos and games. Based on the Alberta learning curriculum, the project would be ideal for grades four through six. “Educating the new generation will really be very important in the context of climate change,” says Strous. “It’s very important that young people learn about these things.”

The team was very impressed with the quality of the students’ feedback and how well they had taken care of the bioreactors. “We got a group who asked very insightful questions — ones that you wouldn’t necessarily expect unless they had a real interest in what they were doing,” Cañon-Rubio says.

Adds Sharp, “One of the goals of this project was to inspire the next generation to love science, and learn what it means to be a scientist.

Maybe in 10 years one of them will be in the lab!”

Learn more, and see the bioreactors up close!

Sharp and her team will be at the on-campus Innovation Reactor, hosted by the Faculty of Science, taking place on Wednesday, Sept. 13, from 5 to 8 p.m. The event connects the campus community, innovators, and entrepreneurs for an evening of learning and networking.

The group will also be leading the Alumni Weekend session The Greenest Green Energy on Saturday, Sept. 23, from 10 to 11 a.m. The session promises an inside look at the micro-organisms we interact with every day. Participants will get hands-on experience with some of the microscopes and other tools that the Solar Biocells team uses in their day-to-day research.

 

Photo: Christine Sharp, Zachary Urquhart, and Karen Cañon-Rubio from the Energy Bioengineering Group piloted the Fixing the Atmosphere educational program in a Grade 5 classroom last spring. The program provides a hands-on learning experience for classrooms to explore bioreactors as an alternative energy source. Photos by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

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