CEI News

STEM Outreach: Graduate students mentor high-school students in science and solar research

CEI Graduate fellow makes mentoring students an integral part of her research path

Clean Energy Institute Graduate Fellow Jenny Stein did not find her love of chemistry in a musty textbook. Instead, she was inspired to tackle an academic career in science by a teacher who focused on the impacts of research. Today, Jenny is passing that love of discovery and applied research along to high school students interested in STEM careers.

“My first chemistry professor in undergrad acted as a mentor and friend throughout my four years in chemistry. He would always pass interesting inorganic articles onto me and we would chat about the impact of the chemistry in different applications,” she said. “I think he helped me see past a boring textbook and how you could use science to discover or improve materials which got me really excited for a graduate career.”

Students from TAF Academy build organize solar cells using dyes from berries

Students from TAF Academy build organic solar cells using dyes from berries

Jenny is working in the chemistry laboratory of UW assistant professor Brandi Cossairt, researching new chemistries and materials for next generation solar materials. Using the light detection and controlling qualities of quantum dots, they are studying how to modify the surfaces of less-toxic materials to improve charge transfer. Her research is forging a path that could replace the toxic chemicals and processes used in the production of today’s well-developed silicon and cadmium-based photovoltaic material.

Despite her dedication to research, ambitious goals, and hours in the laboratory, Jenny is resolute not to become, in her words, a “hermit scientist.” She wants the community to support and understand the impactful research that she and others are doing. And, she has sought out opportunities to mentor and inspire the next generation of young researchers. “Balancing research and outreach is good practice for the rest of my career,” Jenny said.

Twice a month, she volunteers with the STEM OUT program through the UW Institute for Science & Math Education, which seeks to broaden participation in science, technology, engineering, and math for youth from backgrounds historically under-represented in the STEM fields. With STEM OUT Jenny frequently travels to South Seattle to mentor students at TAF Academy. On a recent, sunny, spring day at UW, Jenny and the STEM OUT team hosted TAF Academy students in their labs.

Graduate students from UW and high school students from TAF Academy discuss the benefits of solar energy.

Graduate students from UW and high school students from TAF Academy discuss the benefits of solar energy.

Together the academy students and college students discussed how science and research could deliver more than 7,000 times the Earth’s energy needs if we could one day harvest the sun’s full energy capacity. They talked about different materials and different chemistries for solar materials, including the benefits and disadvantages of each. And, as part of the exercise, each team of students built and tested solar cells using materials they created in the lab.

Some of the solar materials were more successful than others when placed in direct sunlight outside. But the point of the exercise was to help inspire students by showing them what a research laboratory looks like and allowing them to “practice” science, Jenny said.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the mentor relationships I developed in undergrad. I’m hoping I can give these high school students a little practice in that area, and also be a resource to any curiosity they might have about a career in science.”

TAF Students

UW graduate students hosted STEM students from TAF Academy this spring as part of the STEM OUT program.