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Kilowatts camp

A “Capture Some Kilowatts!” camper and UW Oshkosh ERIC lab senior researcher Nilay Sheth sample water for testing at the city of Oshkosh’s Menominee Park beach.

“Renewable energy” can probably seem like a fairly abstract concept to middle school students.

… Until you ask them to jam bits of onion and other organic material into a “reactor” soda bottle and predict whether the resultant biogas (if there is any) is methane-rich. It’s basically a baby biodigester, not unlike the building-scaled version at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

“They cool thing is they know all about wind power and solar power,” said Nilay Sheth, senior research scientist in UW Oshkosh’s Environmental Research and Innovation Center (ERIC) labs. “But when I asked them about ‘biomass,’ they didn’t have a clue. They didn’t hear about that as much. That was really more of an eye-opener for them.”

“Eye-openers” in renewable energy is what “Capture Some Kilowatts!” was designed for.

Sheth and other ERIC lab team members offered plenty during UW Oshkosh’s first-ever “Capture Some Kilowatts!” summer science camp, a one-week immersion into renewable energy for up to a dozen middle school students, supported by the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation and coordinated through ERIC, the UW Oshkosh Office of Science Outreach and the institution’s Renewable Energy Institute.

The new summer camp, which wrapped up Aug. 1, was designed for middle school children in grades 6 through 8 in the Oshkosh area. The one-week summer camp was “specifically aimed at increasing their environmental awareness in the area of renewable energy.”

“We wanted the students to feel what it’s like to be a scientist, to ask questions and investigate answers to those questions,” said Anna Waldron, interim director of UW Oshkosh’s Office of Science Outreach.

The program matched each student involved in Capture Some Kilowatts! with a UW Oshkosh undergraduate scientist serving as a one-on-one mentor for the week-long experience. While the middle school students learned and grew through the experience, so did the UW Oshkosh student-scientists, serving as lab-coated role models, fielding and answering questions during the week, just as the program’s original proposal prescribed.

The goal of the camp is also to keep the UW Oshkosh and middle school student mentees in touch after the camp concludes.

“They got to hypothesize and conduct three or four experiments during the week… They got to be first-hand scientists,” Sheth said.

The “Coke-bottle” biogas reactor lab experiment was only one of a few during the summer science camp, Sheth said. Students were also able to get an up-close and personal look at the UW Oshkosh innovative, dry fermentation anaerobic biodigester, which generates up to 10 percent of the campus electric power by feeding off campus food waste, city of Oshkosh grass clippings, nearby municipal wastewater treatment plant byproduct and some sourced agricultural plant material.

Capture Some Kilowatts! also let its young student scientists get their feet wet by sampling some water-quality testing, participating in lab work and notebook journaling, exploring other renewable energy technologies on and off campus involving wind turbines and solar thermal and photovoltaic systems, designing and building solar cars and, as a finale, preparing scientific and research poster-presentation for their parents.

Another critical goal of the camp: Expose the middle school students “to career paths in the sciences to encourage them to pursue jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).”

“We wanted the students to work with college-age students as role models to encourage them to consider science as a career option,” Waldron said. “We also wanted students to spend a week with peers with similar interests. Often, students who like science feel isolated because their friends are into other things–sports, recreation and other subjects.  We want them to see that science is around them every day, in their homes, in the rivers and lakes in our community, everywhere.”


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