Ryan Pekarek, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Chemistry, has two passions: renewable energy and science education. Luckily he's found a way to pursue both on the Forty Acres through his involvement in H2fromH20, an outreach program started by Michael Rose, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry.
The program is one of several public engagement and outreach programs in the College of Natural Sciences that link students in the K-12 system with graduate student leaders to build early enthusiasm for and interest in science. Rose acknowledges that student leaders like Pekarek are an integral part of the program design—and its success.
"The idea is to provide high school teachers both the equipment for conducting an experiment in the classroom and also offer on-site expertise through graduate students like Ryan or our undergraduate volunteers," Rose says.
Now in its fifth year at The University of Texas at Austin, H2fromH20 educates high school chemistry students and middle school science students about the possibility of developing a renewable resource (hydrogen fuel - H2) from water (H2O). The process, called water splitting, requires special equipment that the program provides along with lesson plans for teachers. Pekarek sat down to talk with us about his work with the program.
What sparked your interest in this outreach program?
I first saw H2fromH20 mentioned on Dr. Rose's website when I was considering graduate programs. I thought it was cool that he cared to do outreach, especially science education outreach, so that is part of what drew me to UT Austin. I care about sustainable energy and the environment but I think that, with that, we have to have an educated population to really understand and appreciate it. It's something I'm passionate about and something that I feel I can contribute to the world in addition to science.
How has the program and your role in it evolved over the years?
I've been able to contribute more and more of my time and ideas over the past two years. By working with teachers in the classroom, I've started to have a better appreciation of what is needed from the program in order for them to be most successful. Dr. Rose and I have worked together to make those changes. Growing our "outreach corps" is one example. We now have over 30 undergraduate student volunteers who help disseminate and teach information during labs. Lowering the student-to-teacher ratio makes teaching the lessons easier and more effective. It's been a collaborative effort, and it is working! Our retention rates are very high. The teachers who participate in H2fromH20 really get into it and often return. We've taught about 25-30 class periods at six different Austin schools so far this academic year.
How do high school and middle school students usually respond?
There is an excitement that we bring to class that can be difficult to get with most chemistry labs. We often blow up the hydrogen that students make in class, which is always fun. By getting students involved and excited about science, they tend to care more and it helps us to increase the scope of what they're learning. It's a chemistry lab but they're also learning about hydrogen fuel, solar energy and why chemistry is important in general.
What are some unexpected ways you have benefited from it?
The longer I've been here the more of a managerial role I've taken on. I communicate with teachers, interns, and volunteers regularly to coordinate school visits. I've learned a lot about communication and management that will never get quantified into a thesis. These are soft skills that I'm acquiring that I don't think you normally expect to get in a science Ph.D. It's experience that I wouldn't have had otherwise and wouldn't have gotten without this program.