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Secondary Educator Training: Opening Their Eyes to the Future

NEWBio Objective XI: Educate students, citizens, landowners and policymakers to increase public understanding of biomass alternatives, including the social, economic, and environmental impacts of sustainable bioenergy systems in the NE.

Paul Heasley gave the NEWBio Bioenergy & Bioproducts Education Program (BBEP) welcome news recently: the Ag Science Program within State College Area High School's Career and Technical Center (where Heasley is an instructor) received approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Education for grant funding to implement a Biomass Education Center and purchase a biomass pellet maker and a biomass hammer mill. Heasley was one of ten participants at NEWBio's Penn State July 2014 BBEP Teacher Partner Workshop. The workshop provided short-term development experiences for educators interested in learning about and teaching bioenergy and sustainability in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. The NEWBio Educator Training Program supported the Penn State workshop and a second workshop at West Virginia University. Corrine Rutzke, director of BBEP and task lead for NEWBio's teacher training said each workshop attempts to have a localized theme: the Penn State University workshop focused more on the actual NEWBio project and the West Virginia University workshop focused on the Forest Products Industry.

After an introduction to the bioenergy industry, participants in the Penn State workshop progressed through their week learning about the importance of sustainability in education, the variables of feedstock and biomass production, the rationale supporting bioenergy research, and the logistics of supply chain management of bioproducts, all in relation to components of the NEWBio Project. Program participants collaborated with all facets of NEWBio's project and worked with students studying torrefaction to gain insight on construction of pellets. They also observed the operation of the Penns Valley Biomass Heating System, and toured a State College Area High School classroom to see application of their learnt material. Leah Bug, BBEP workshop site director at Penn State, noted, "systems thinking is a major focal point of the workshop. Teachers were introduced to the interdisciplinary aspect of the NEWBio project, the connections between each task area, and how knowledge gained in one area impacts the research in other areas".

West Virginia University workshop participants also began their workshop with introductions to bioenergy, biomass, and bioproducts introductions. After receiving instruction on safety, they engaged in seven laboratory sessions, while gaining knowledge of market economics, land-use policies, biodiesel production, and sustainability of bioenergy. Participants received a comprehensive education on forestry systems and wood products through the workshop lectures and tours of Allegheny Wood Products Incorporated and Appalachian Wood Pellets Incorporated.

David DeVallance, BBEP workshop site director at WVU, said that "biomass energy could be the driver of social, economic, and ecological revitalization in the rural economy within the Northeast region. Given this vision and recent developments in the energy sector in our region (specifically, an increased focus on natural gas exploration and development) education on the environmental benefits and challenges of the bioenergy sector are key in being able to successfully develop a future bioenergy industry and meet the vision. Teachers in 6-12 are needed to spur the future workforce into being excited about studying bioenergy".

At both workshops, educators participated in a "Grasses to Sugars" lab which is to be replicated in Advanced Placement (AP) Environmental Science classes in high schools. This lab, said Rutzke, "guides students in the design of their own experiment testing various pretreatments of grass to maximize glucose production" and is a prime example of how to excite students about bioenergy through hands-on learning. Annually, there is a Site Directors planning meeting, in which speakers, sites, and lessons for the workshops are planned. At the next Site Directors planning meeting, Rutkze says an "additional 20 (teacher-tested) engagement activities" will be introduced. Plans to develop workshop materials are in motion, and are expected to be finalized and distributed within the next three years.

Bug said she was "thrilled with the success" of the Educator Training Program. She and DeVallance both received positive feedback on their respective workshops. Natalie Aiello, a 4-H educator and participant at the Penn State Workshop, wrote to Bug stating "The teacher training workshop was wonderful…I'm ready to hit the ground running!". Rutzke mentioned that a participant contacted her saying "Before this workshop, I used to turn my students away from agriculture, telling them it was a nowhere career path, and I work in a rural school district! I had no idea there were so many different possible career paths for people with agricultural expertise. I am going to use many of the concepts from the bioproducts part of the program in my chemistry classes next year."

As for Heasley and his high school Ag Science program, his efforts will focus on starting a biomass energy garden demonstration project to harvest and produce biomass pellets. "This may take several months, but the first step is approved and underway," said Heasley.

A full listing of 2014 BBEP Workshops dates, locations, and registration information is available here.

For more information, see the NEWBio Education page.

Story credit: Rachel Passmore, Penn State Class of 2014 and NEWBio Intern

NEWBio (consortium members below) is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2012-68005-19703 
from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
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