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Educators will be trained in ways to teach about biofuels, thanks to $5 million grant

From the farm to the fuel pump, Cornell educators hope to get youngsters excited about science, technology, engineering and math through interactive lessons in bioenergy with the help of $5 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The five-year faculty professional development grant will be used to train science teachers so they in turn can incorporate lessons and hands-on activities about bioenergy and products made from algae, willow, switchgrass, soybean oil and other feedstocks into their middle school, high school and college classrooms.

Corinne Rutzke, a senior research associate in biological and environmental engineering, is director of the newly formed Northeast Bioenergy and Bioproducts Education Program and executive director of the Northeast Sun Grant Initiative Institute of Excellence. She will host workshops on Cornell's Ithaca campus in conjunction with the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, and has also partnered with other institutions -- the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, Delaware State University, Ohio State University's Ohio Bioproducts Innovation Center and the Energy and Climate Center at Pace University Law School -- to deliver the program there.

Together they will develop a joint curriculum, which will be supplemented by material focusing on the expertise of each institution. Pace University, for instance, will provide information on environmental policy and economics, while Delaware State will be able to speak specifically about its algal biofuel research.

"We will be able to bring all of these different perspectives from experts at the five mirror sites into the curriculum and build a program with the goal of inspiring students to careers in science and engineering," Rutzke said.

Activity-based educational tools already developed by Rutzke and others at Cornell will be an integral part of the program. These include a board game, Biofuels: The Race to the Pump!, and lab kits that allow students to make sugar from switchgrass. Teachers will also learn how to use state-of-the-art interactive "smart boards" for use in their classrooms.

"Just as space inspired learning in the 1960s and beyond, the global environment and bio-based solutions inspire learning today," Rutzke said. "We are hoping that by giving teachers these tools, they will be able to engage students in math and science."

Rutzke said the program is designed to train 66 teachers per year. Ten of those will become certified master teacher trainers, who will then go on to lead trainings of 10 more educators at each of the five campuses. Six will participate in internships at research laboratories and industry sites.

The project was one of two funded through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, which set up a sustainable bioenergy challenge to support the development of regional systems for the sustainable production of bioenergy and bio-based products.

Teachers can apply Feb. 1 through March 31 online for workshops set to begin this summer. More information can be found online.

Stacey Shackford is a staff writer at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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