Thursday, August 1, 2013

S.T.E.M. Students Enjoy Shell Energy Camp at UNO

Twenty area high schoolers experience Louisiana wetlands, explore oil and gas industries 

During the first week of June, twenty high schoolers hoping to expand their horizons and learn more about science, technology, mathematics and engineering put canoes into the water at the University of New Orleans Shea Penland Coastal Education and Research Facility (CERF) located near a national wildlife refuge about 30 minutes from campus.

By starting their summers on the Louisiana wetlands, the young students from inner-city New Orleans embarked on an adventure of scientific discovery that UNO researchers hope will last a lifetime and help the students to build future careers.

"The energy camp is really based around the idea of trying to give kids an idea of science, engineering and mathematics (S.T.E.M.)," said Ivan Gill, a geoscientist who works in the University's College of Education and Human Development. "We use the CERF facility to actually give them a feeling of what the wetlands are like and a little bit of understanding about the connection between biological cycles and fossil fuels. A lot of oil and natural gas are drawn in the wetlands area of Southeast Louisiana," said Gill, adding that for the last half-century, careers in oil and gas exploration have for many residents been "quite commonplace."

The annual summer energy camp for minority S.T.E.M. students sponsored by Shell Oil Company is designed to expose area high schoolers participating in a University-run Upward Bound program to S.T.E.M. concepts and resources and opportunities within the oil and gas and energy industries. About 5 out of the 21 students participating partake in a UNO Upward Bound program; the rest came from schools around the New Orleans area.

Now in its third year at UNO, the Shell Energy Camp expands with every session and has been so successful that a high school in Baton Rouge is now using the camp as a model to develop its own enrichment program for minority S.T.E.M. students.

The one-week program took students to CERF and Shell Oil facilities around the region.

A Day in the Wetlands

On the fourth day of energy camp, students headed to CERF, located in the marshy wetlands of Chef Menteur Pass, not far from Bayou Sauvage.

The CERF is located at Chef Menteur Pass, a narrow natural waterway in the eastern Orleans Parish community of Lake Catherine that connects Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne along with the Rigolets. The facility is ideally located less than a quarter of a mile from the 23,000-acre Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, the largest urban wildlife refuge in the United States.

Students divided into two groups: Ten students spent time canoeing in the marsh and surrounding canals, while two smaller groups collected plankton and water samples from a boat or from the dock behind the facility using very fine-mesh nets to skim the water in a "plankton tow," said CERF environmental science educator Dinah Maygarden.

Following canoeing and a plankton tow, students brought their specimens inside the facility to examine and identify the tiny organisms using microscopes.

The exercise revealed that students had pulled up phytoplankton and zooplankton, said Maygarden.

Phytoplankton are tiny plants that range from protozoan organisms invisible to the naked eye to the more familiar seaweed and algae. Phytoplankton prefer warmer surface waters close to sunlight, which helps them with photosynthesis. Zooplankton are animals, including tiny fish and crustaceans, such as krill and small jellyfish. They are more likely to frequent deeper, darker waters where sunlight doesn't reach.

They are an essential part of biological cycling and the forming of carbon compounds that become hydrocarbons in oil and natural gas, researchers said.

"One of our goals is to make that connection between the environment and the oil and gas resources that we've all been looking at," said Maygarden. "The oil and energy resources that the students may be looking at on another day of camp may have begun as a hot swampy area of phytoplankton that eventually got buried and turned into hydrocarbons."

Exploring Energy Sources and Conservation

Concepts like energy conservation, renewable energy and fossil fuels are illustrated through scientific experiments, said Gill, science education coordinator at UNO's College of Education and Human Development. When developing curriculum for science instruction, he tries to give students experiments and experiences that will help them later academically.

At the Shell Energy Camp in June, he led students building wind machines and designing a solar house to help them understand energy sources and renewable fuel. The hands-on experiential learning exercises are fun to do, but also have some intellectual teeth, Gill said, noting that the exercises would help them later when studying physics, for example.

"The energy camp is really based around the idea of trying to give kids an idea of S.T.E.M.," said Gill. "We talk about energy from a variety of perspectives. We deal with what it is in the physical sense," he said, "as well as from the standpoint of where we get it (fossil fuels); how energy is transferred from one form to another (for example, from fossil fuels to electricity and kinetic energy (e.g. a car in motion)."

"Then we deal with it from an economic perspective, a human perspective and a geological perspective. For example, how much is it going to cost to use a particular type of light source?" Gill said. "The perspective would be that you can either use energy or you can try to conserve it. As our population grows, we have a choice. We either need to try and produce it at a higher and higher rate or we can try to use less -- in an effort that we would need to produce less."

Exploring Energy, Exploring Careers

Students' discovery process ran from exploration of science concepts to exploration of various disciplines and careers in the oil, gas and energy industries.

During the course of the week, the teenagers had the opportunity to meet engineers, geoscientists and technicians at three Shell Oil facilities in the greater New Orleans area: One Shell Square in downtown New Orleans, the NORCO oil refinery in St. Charles Parish and the Robert Training Center on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.

"These young Shell employees are very interested in what they do and they share that with the kids -- and I know they appreciate it," said Gill. "They actually get to meet with them, interact with them and try to understand other career paths that are available to them. It's certainly an opportunity I never had and that I think very few people would have."

Career Building at Shell

Shell Oil Company has an interest in exciting young students and developing their skills and interests in STEM, officials said when visiting UNO this spring for a Shell S.T.E.M. Showdown hosted by the oil company at the University.

With the advent of Baby Boomers retiring and ongoing construction of Shell's new Olympus deep water platform, the first deep-water foil tension log platform off the Louisiana coast. Shell sees continued demand for STEM workers through at least 2050, when the life span of Olympus ends, officials said. The energy giant is now planning its future workforce.

Rapidly developing advances in technology have heightened a need for technical skills and understanding of basic science, even for offshore jobs that traditionally were considered simply manual labor.

Together Olympus and its counterpart Mars will help to drill 48 oil wells off the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast. Shell Oil is reaching out to parents, teachers and students in local communities to let them know about the opportunities that exist and the importance of math and science to those critical technical jobs.

"I think the technology required for drilling is an order of magnitude different than it was two generations ago," said Gill, explaining the oil and energy giant's motivation in funding the energy camp. "They are drilling in places they never drilled before, so the equipment and technology that is required for that is quite different."


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