Teens spend the summer researching in PSU labs

PITTSBURG, Kan. – Isabella Earp is a student at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, but two days a week she makes the four-hour round trip to Pittsburg for a unique educational opportunity that offers a chance to help find a new clean and renewable energy sources.

Along with seven other high school students, she is part of an internship program at the Kansas Polymer Research Center at Pittsburg State University funded by grants from PSU’s Polymer Chemistry program, as well as a space grant from the NASA in Kansas and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. .

“I’m part of an environmental club in high school and I’m excited about everything about STEM and the ability to continue to learn that here,” she said. “Renewable energies are an important topic and doing this kind of work will give me an advantage. ”

It also gives her $ 8 an hour, 20 hours a week, in more intriguing work, she noted, than her other at McDonald’s.

Closer to Pittsburg, Parker Neely didn’t have to think twice before heading to Pittsburg to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the internship program.

“I love chemistry, I love physics, and Pitt State has one of the best polymer chemistry programs in the country,” he said. “It’s worth it.”

Earp and Neely, along with local students Ashlan Brooks, Anjali Gupta, Madeline Ellis and Cassia Allison from Pittsburg High School, and Kamilla Frevele, a high school student from Southeast High School in Cherokee, synthesize a new material, printed by 3D printers, to be used in super capacitors, batteries and fuel cells. They are joined by Peyton Klamar, an undergraduate student at PSU, and Edilawit Mehari, an undergraduate student at Cottey College.

Teenagers are motivated by two things: the desire to gain experience before the next step in their college journey, and the desire to do something for the environment.

“It’s like I’m doing something valuable to help fix things,” Neely said.

“I want to make a difference,” Allison said. “Our generation knows we have to do it.”

“It makes me feel important to do something that could change our environment,” Gupta said.

In the lab

Students conduct their research in Labs 118 and 121 in the heart of the KPRC, located at the eastern end of campus, adjacent to the university’s softball and baseball fields.

They are guided by scientists from all over the world to Pittsburg to work at the center. Here, these scientists collaborate with industrial partners, organizations, state and federal agencies and producer associations to develop and commercialize intellectual property. Their main objectives: polyurethanes, bio-based materials, polymer foams and electroactive materials.

The laboratories give students access to advanced equipment such as a scanning electron microscope, X-ray diffraction, infrared spectrometer, thermal analyzer, and equipment used for electrochemical synthesis and testing.

As they work, they draw inspiration from stories of what students have already helped discover at KPRC: Last year, two high school students worked with associate professor Ram Gupta to find a solution to convert the bio-waste – things like pomegranate shells, used coffee grounds, and soybean stems, leaves and hulls – in an energy storage device.

Other students have helped develop an environmentally friendly flame retardant foam that can be used in commercial applications such as construction and automobiles. The fuel cells that students are researching this year could be used in electric cars.

“Reducing the cost would make them affordable for the masses, while improving their charging would make them more travel friendly,” Professor Gupta said.

The skills learned by students also have direct application to the Kansas workforce, where nearly half a million people are employed in the plastics and polymers industries. Beyond Kansas, the sky is the limit, Gupta said, when it comes to those students finding lucrative jobs in the field – what they do is the future.

“It’s pretty amazing what’s going on here,” Ellis said. “It’s exciting to be a part of it.

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