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Young students develop bright ideas through STEM initiative

October 02, 2008

Tatyana Emamali, Kosiba Oshodi-Glover and Renzo Callejas meticulously lined the inside of a cardboard pizza box with black construction paper as they chatted excitedly about testing out their creation. The Mesa middle school students fashioned a reflective aluminum foil panel to the box top and wondered aloud if the solar ovens they were building really could melt the cheese on nachos.

“Basically, we’re trying to cook food by using the sun,” said Oshodi-Glover, an eighth-grader at Powell Junior High School. She explained how the sun had to reflect off the foil and through a covering of plastic wrap to the heat-absorbing black paper.

The solar oven experiment was part of a Salt River Project-sponsored summer internship held in July 2008 to teach students about sustainable energy. The SRP Renewable Energy Summer Internship was part of Arizona State University’s program titled Learning through Engineering Design and Practice: Using our Human Capital for an Equitable Future.

In Fall 2007, forty-eight students from Mesa’s Powell and Carson Junior High Schools were selected to participate in Arizona State University’s Learning through Engineering Design and Practice, an informal after-school program. Students in the program make a commitment to participate in the year round program for two years. During the summer, they are given opportunities to attend a youth docentship with the Arizona Science Center and internships with companies like Boeing, Intel, SRP, Motorola, and Microchip.

The Learning through Engineering Design and Practice project is funded by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings’ program titled Information Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST). This NSF program responds to current concerns and projections about shortages of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professionals and information technology workers in the United States and seeks solutions to help ensure the breadth and depth of the STEM workforce.

SRP Community Outreach Representative Tina Skjerping said SRP is collaborating with ASU to help children learn about alternative energy sources in the hopes of inspiring them to pursue and thrive in science and engineering careers. “These are our future scientists, our future engineers at SRP,” she said. “At the same time, we are shaping future consumers who will have a better understanding of renewable energy and its potential.”

Led by Tirupalavanam Ganesh, Assistant Dean for Information Systems with ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, the project is funded by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation and community partnerships. The goal is to expose underrepresented youth to STEM concepts and to encourage, support, and nurture their academic pursuits within the STEM disciplines as they develop their career interests and prepare for high school and college.

During the SRP summer internship, in addition to constructing a solar cooker, students built arrays of photovoltaic cells to power a light bulb. Along this process of exploring how to use the sun’s energy to cook food and to power a light bulb, students pondered questions related to harnessing energy from natural resources, such as “How could we utilize pin-wheel (wind mill) technology to produce electric energy?”

Ganesh said, “This internship has challenged our youth to think about ways they can harness renewable resources to power our future, with attention to our habitats, lifestyles, and anticipated growth in population.”

The SRP summer internship, the first of two summer experiences for students in the Learning through Engineering Design and Practice program, was facilitated by SRP’s Community Outreach, SRP scientists and engineers, and staff from the Arizona Foundation for Resource Education.

“SRP is proud to be a part of this exemplary program, which gives students hands-on experience with math, science and technology,” said SRP Manager of Community Outreach, Karen Fisch. “The experiences they gained this summer will certainly last a lifetime.”

Larry McBiles, Executive Director, of the Arizona Foundation for Resource Education said, "This program encourages students to think critically as they apply their new learning to real-world challenges. We are excited to be a part of this highly engaging project."

Emamali, a petite and bright 7th grader, said she thrives on taking things apart and reconstructing them. Her early aptitude in the sciences may be more than a child’s normal curiosity to understand how things are made. “I’m thinking about becoming a mechanical engineer,” she said with self-assurance. “I am very creative in arts and crafts and building things.” Emamali said she enjoys the program because the teachers don’t just answer students’ questions. “They ask us, ‘What do you think will be most effective?’ and ‘Why?’” she said.

ASU Graduate Research Associate Johnny Thieken said students learn better from discovery rather than rote explanations. As both a doctoral student and as a high school math teacher, Thieken said he has noticed that girls outnumber boys in his high school pre-calculus classes, but the female population in math and science studies dwindles in college.

“I’m curious what happens from a junior in high school to a freshman in college,” he said. “We really need these activities to be less like school. Kids get bored.”

These students weren’t bored over the past year as they used Lego Mindstorms™ robotics kits to simulate desert tortoise behaviors; explored electrical circuits, built switches using found objects, and created a chain reaction using PICO Cricket™ Kits; studied the urban heat island phenomenon and tested out various materials as insulators in an attempt to maintain the inside temperature of a “room”; and discovered renewable energy sources, such as solar, hydroelectric and wind.

The program allows them to work with the ASU Global Institute of Sustainability to investigate how to mitigate the affects of urban heat islands and the ASU Mars Education Program to build a habitat for humans on Mars.

Researchers with ASU’s Learning through Engineering Design and Practice project are hoping to develop a curriculum from this project that will be implemented at the Boys and Girls Club of the East Valley and the Arizona Science Center.

For more information about this program go to or read related articles about this and other STEM programs at ASU in the Community or log onto