UC Has Generation-Next Technology for the Next Generation of Researchers Now

Students from Cincinnati's Withrow University High School toured three University of Cincinnati engineering labs focused on fuel cell generation and testing, materials characterization, and UC’s world-record breaking carbon nanotubes.

The UC program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), called “Research Experience for Teachers/Research Experience for Undergraduates in Membrane Applied Science and Technology” (RET-REU), was designed by Ron Millard, professor of pharmacology and cell biophysics, as a model project for high school teacher-student teams, starting in 2009.

“NSF provided funding for two high school teacher-student teams to translate UC faculty research expertise into new learning units for implementation during the 2009–2010 academic year at their respective CPS schools,” Millard explains. “Dr. Gloria Ononye and Anthony Edmerson came from Withrow University High School, and Ms. Ronnda Cargile and Ashanti Riddle came from the STEM School at Hughes Center.”

“I secured the 2009–2010 supplemental funding for these teacher-student teams from the NSF as a national test case in building broader impact for membrane science applications and technologies, advancing teacher and high school student literacy in contemporary STEMM disciplines — science, technology, engineering, math and medicine, increasing interest in STEMM college degrees among high school students, and translating new science into the high school STEMM curriculum through the creation of new learning units for classroom implementation in 2009–2010.”

This recent tour reunited Advanced Placement and Honors biology teacher Gloria Ononye, student Anthony Edmerson, Professor Millard and Assistant Professor Anastasios Angelopoulos, in whose chemical engineering lab Anthony had worked. Also on the tour was Natombi Simpson, 10th grade biology teacher. The students selected for the UC tour were juniors and seniors enrolled in AP biology, Honors chemistry and AP chemistry classes at Withrow University High School.

Angelopoulos was their tour guide. The first stop was in his lab where he had set up fuel cells. He handed out safety glasses to the group, emphasizing that as they continue through high school, college and into industry, they need to keep safety in the front of their minds.

“Safety violations often don’t give you a second chance,” he said.

In his lab, he showed the group how they were developing alternative energy sources to petroleum fuels. The fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen, which forms water, and creates energy.

“It’s a clean process,” Angelopoulos pointed out. “The only byproduct is water and there are many sources of hydrogen.”

He had set up an example of electrolysis cell to show them how hydrogen can be produced from water. Students asked him many questions.

“The trouble with fuel cells is irreversibility,” said Angelopoulos. “You need a catalyst to get the reaction to happen. In this case, you need platinum, a precious metal. And it’s not 100% efficient.”

“Platinum is very expensive,” he continued. “That’s why fuel cells like this one are not commercially viable today.”

Another source of irreversible fuel cell operation is the movement of materials, including water, through the various components of a fuel cell. For example, the fuel cell membrane has to be wet but water can also block access of fuel to the catalyst.

“How do we enhance the movement of water through the fuel cell?” Angelopoulos asked. “That leads us into our next room.” Then he led the group into the next lab.

“We’re very fortunate in this university in that we have a test stand where we can test the fuel cells,” said Angelopoulos. “This is where Anthony Edmerson worked last summer.”

Withrow University High School student Anthony Edmerson was trained in the summer of 2009 to independently operate the fuel cell test station. Beginning in June 2009, with support through the NSF REU-RET program in Membrane Applied Science and Technology directed at UC by Ron Millard, Anthony worked testing the fuel cells.

“Anthony was very instrumental in getting out the bugs testing for us,” said Angelopoulos.

“I am also very pleased to continue to assist Dr. Gloria Ononye and Anthony on their task to develop a fuel cell teaching module for as long as they would like,” added Angelopoulos. “I have set aside space in my lab for them to occupy during this process. At the conclusion of his stay with me, Anthony will be one of the few high school students in the nation capable of independently operating an industrial grade fuel cell test stand. In the process, he will become familiar with all of the drawbacks and advantages of fuel cells that he can pass on to fellow students and that Gloria can incorporate into a teaching module.”

Anthony had been chosen by his teacher Gloria Ononye to work with Angelopoulos. Anthony knew that he was interested in science in general, but he wasn’t sure what kind of science in particular. Ononye felt this project would help give him focus.

“I worked the whole summer of 2009 and then volunteered on Wednesdays for two more months after that,” Anthony said. “I really enjoyed working with Professor Angelopoulos. It changed my life.”

He has a clear vision as to what he wants to do: “I want to finish my time at Withrow, obviously,” he said. Because of his time with Professor Angelopoulos, he says, he now knows that he wants to major in chemical engineering at UC. “Chemical engineering, all the way!” he adds.

The tour then continued to the famous NanoWorld, home of the world-record-breaking carbon nanotubes of Professors Vesselin Shanov and Mark Schulz.

Graduate students Pravahan Salunke and Ying Chen showed the students a movie about the Space Elevator, where someday people might be able to “ride” up into space by means of a thin ribbon — possibly constructed of carbon nanotubes.

“The challenge is that the material has to be very strong and yet very light,” said Salunke. “One such material is carbon nanotubes.”

Withrow University High School senior Jocelin Morrow, who will be coming to UC in the fall as a pre-nursing student, was very excited to learn about the space elevator.

“There are new developments in science all the time,” she said. “I like hearing how our generation will be going into space.”

The movie also showed Neil Armstrong saying, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” as he walked on the moon more than 40 years ago. The students learned that Neil Armstrong had taught in UC’s Aerospace Engineering Department, that it was the second-oldest aerospace program in the country and that Orville Wright had helped design it.

Then the students learned more about carbon nanotubes from Salunke as he showed them the furnaces and nanotube arrays in various forms.

Finally the group made its last stop in the Materials Characterization Center where graduate student Kelly Cross was operating the scanning electron microscope under the supervision of Research Assistant Professor Doug Kohls.

After Cross finishes her master’s degree in the Chemical and Materials Engineering Department, she will be transferring to the Engineering Education Department for her PhD.

“When people look at me, they don’t think that I’m an engineer,” she said. “And I want to teach folks just like you.”

Millard also didn’t miss any opportunity to teach the students, for example, seizing upon an instance when Doug Kohls used the common phrase “an order of magnitude.”

“But what is an ‘order of magnitude’?” Millard asked the group. He let the students guess until finally they revealed that one order of magnitude is, indeed, 10. So therefore something on the nanoscale that is three orders of magnitude smaller than a human hair is one thousand times smaller than a human hair.

“Or 10 times 10 times 10,” Angelopoulos said. “A thousand.”

Cross' teaching skills were evident from the start, and the Withrow students were ready for her.

“Now this microscope is looking at things at the micron level,” she said. “But what’s a micron?”

“A unit of measurement?” one brave soul ventured.

“That’s right, but in terms of meters, how big is it?”

“It’s 10 to the negative six?”

“Exactly,” Cross replied. Teacher Ononye looked proudly at her relieved student who had answered correctly. But Cross wasn’t done.

“So in a scanning electron microscope, why are we dealing with electrons and not neutrons?” she asked.

—“They’re charged.”

—“They’re negatively charged.”

—“You can tell what element it is.”

—“The electrons are on the outside.”

“Exactly,” said Cross. “The electrons are in a cloud on the outside.”

Ononye said that after her own summer experience at UC, she could see the remarkable difference it made in her classes. She was eager to be able to get them all on campus.

“This is exactly why I try to get my students here,” Ononye said later. “My mission is not just to teach — it is to educate. I want them to become passionate about learning.”

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