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ORNL : Bioenergy education program reaches hundreds of thousands on climate strategies, workforce opportunities


More than 300,000 students, teachers, and families across the country have been engaged in learning about what bioenergy can do to reduce carbon emissions and provide good jobs through a collaborative approach to science outreach adopted by the Center for Bioenergy Innovation (CBI) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

As a Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Center, CBI and its predecessor, the BioEnergy Science Center (BESC), for 15 years have achieved significant scientific breakthroughs for efficient, cost-effective breakdown and conversion of trees and plants into clean biobased fuels and products.

To cultivate awareness and adoption of bioenergy and to pique interest in bioeconomy careers, CBI and BESC created and disseminated curricula, equipment, and other learning tools that have been successful in reaching students, teachers, and families.

The program owes its success in part to its collaboration with the Creative Discovery Museum (CDM) in Chattanooga, Tennessee. CDM spearheads the development of curricula, lessons, and activities. The materials are used at the museum and are also disseminated through a network of regional and national science museums, said CBI Chief Science Officer Brian Davison of ORNL. The “train-the-trainers” approach for museum staff and teachers and the flexibility to tailor offerings to local needs has resulted in a force multiplier for the program, he said.

When the outreach program began in 2009, Davison and the activity lead for education and outreach for BESC, Janet Westpheling of the University of Georgia, worked with CDM staff to create hands-on bioenergy lesson plans for students in grades 4-6. The plans, designed to meet state learning standards, were piloted in Tennessee and Georgia schools. The lessons are now expanded to middle and high school students. The content ranges from basic explanations of energy production, photosynthesis, cell wall structure, the bioenergy and carbon cycles to how genetically modified microbes can help break down plant matter, and the technical and economic obstacles to a robust bioeconomy.

Training the trainers
“One of our key goals was to create a program that would move toward being as self-sustaining as possible,” Davison said. “We’ve succeeded by engaging science museums across the country, expanding the lesson formats and delivery methods, and with our train-the-trainer model.” The program has added family science night activities at regional museums, schools, and library open houses. It offers distance learning options, as well as lessons and activities that students and parents can do on their own. An “Ask-a-Scientist” portal and a biofuels Road Trip Challenge game app are other project options that have proven to be popular.

The lessons center around a “Farming for Fuels” theme and are available on CDM’s learnbioenergy.org website. As CBI’s focus has shifted to producing sustainable jet fuel from plants, the outreach program has produced a new app, “Carbon Challenge,” that allows users to explore fuel efficiency, availability, and environmental impact.

Around 25 science museums and centers in 16 states have introduced CBI-developed lessons over the past 12 years. Museum partners, besides CDM in Chattanooga, now include Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah; LeMay America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Washington; Explora in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Exploreum in Mobile, Alabama; and spectrUM in Missoula, Montana.

Wayne Robinson, bioscience coordinator at CDM, said he’s “received the gift of witnessing ‘a-ha’ moments many times during his decade-long tenure working with the project.” Robinson is a driving force behind the program’s success, as he conducts teacher and museum staff training across the country, helps develop and update lessons and programs, provides curriculum development workshops, assists with recording virtual lessons, helps maintain the website, and provides coordination of all aspects of the project nationwide.

“Students usually think of solar panels and electric vehicles when they hear about alternative energy. They don’t immediately think of bioenergy and biofuels. That’s where we step in,” Robinson said.

Creating ‘a-ha’ moments
Over the past couple of years, CBI reached another 26,000 students, parents, and teachers with its outreach program, bringing the total for the past decade to more than 300,000. The program recorded 15,503 new users on the website during the year, bringing the total number of users since the website went live in 2019 to more than 45,000.

Distance learning lessons and webinars proved popular with teachers and homeschoolers engaged in virtual learning during the pandemic. The program won the International Center for Interactive Learning Pinnacle Award in 2019.

“When I see students across the country finally begin to understand that there are multiple solutions for a cleaner future, it gives me a great deal of satisfaction. I also enjoy training educators and sharing the exciting news about bioenergy with them at events like the National Science Teaching Association conferences each year,” Robinson said.

Robinson said there have been lots of opportunities for enlightenment because of the program’s flexibility. CDM and other museums could adjust the program’s focus and make it exciting and hands-on for every region and grade level. “We don’t provide dog-and-pony shows, but real-life, engaging learning experiences,” he said. “We’re getting the message across to students, teachers, and parents that significant scientific advancements are being made and that plant-based energy can be a viable solution for the future.” At the same time, he said students are being encouraged to be lifelong learners and are introduced to learning opportunities that leave them excited about clean energy solutions.

Davison said the hub-and-spoke model of partnering with CDM and then networking with regional and national science centers across the country has been a boon to engagement. “On family science nights, we’ll have fifth through eighth graders come out and they’ll bring their siblings and parents. Seeing that connection and people’s openness to new ideas has been very gratifying. Even more so have been the moments when you see a young girl realize for the first time that she, too, can be a scientist. These are the secondary, subtle impacts that we’re happy to make,” he said.

CBI is one of four Bioenergy Research Centers funded by the Biological and Environmental Research program within the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. These centers are laying the scientific groundwork for a clean, robust, biobased economy.

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