POETS ERC and ENVISION Cultivate Well-Rounded Graduate Students Supporting K-12 STEM Outreach

Achievement date: 

Approximately 50 graduate students of the NSF-funded Power Optimization for Electro-Thermal Systems (POETS) Engineering Research Center (ERC) participated in a training seminar on K-12 STEM outreach mobilization during the ERC’s second annual NSF Site Visit. The seminar, hosted by ENVISION (Engineers Volunteering In STEM EducatION), fostered the students’ skills in communicating scientific research to broader public audiences while also developing capacity to foster curiosity in young learners. Universities participating in POETS include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Howard University, Stanford University, and the University of Arkansas.


Graduate students often uncover learning gaps in the skills sets they are required to master in preparation for their future professional careers. POETS’ goal is to evolve “T-shaped graduates” who possess what Associate Director of Education & Inclusivity, Jessica Perez, describes as: "depth of expertise in their chosen discipline, as well as technical breadth, and professional breadth. Professional breadth includes leadership skills, entrepreneurship, systems thinking, scientific communication skills, teaching experience, and management skills."

STEM outreach enhances scientific communication skills and provides teaching opportunities. It reinforces leadership skills and requires a new perspective on research. The ENVISION training seminar at the POETS ERC helps to bridge professional learning gaps using fun and thought-provoking activities that engage the graduate students towards taking further action to develop themselves and others. The seminar further encouraged the graduate students to initiate graduate-student lead outreach efforts and organizations in their home institutions if none already existed; participants were invited to maintain ties to ENVISION.


ENVISION, Illinois' engineering graduate student group focused on outreach, was founded by Matt Milner and Ashley Armstrong in Spring 2016; but in only a year, it has quickly grown to become an interdisciplinary effort involving more than 30 active members across all engineering fields. Two of the organization’s board members - Malia Kawamura and James Carpenter  - are POETS ERC graduate students: Kawamura, Vice President of ENVISION, is a second year graduate student in POETS PI Andrew Alleyne’s lab; ENVISION’s Treasurer, James Carpenter, is also a Mechanical Software Engineering first-year grad student in Professor Nenad Miljkovic's lab, which hosts at least one POETS-funded project. Kawamura and Carpenter invited Milner to host the seminar, "STEM Outreach: A Supplement to Your Research Skill Set," for graduate students from the four POETS universities. Their goal was to give graduate student participants a taste of how fun and rewarding outreach can be, while also supporting the ERC’s vision to enable T-shaped graduate students, and increasing the number of youngsters exposed to both STEM and POETS topics.

The seminar featured a hands-on activity, which exemplified the kinds of K-12 STEM outreach activities the participating graduate students could begin to lead. Milner, Kawamura and Carpenter wanted “to give the participants a jump start in replicating K-12 outreach in their home institutions.” The activity chosen was one that ENVISION originally offered at a summer camp for middle school students. Students compete to build pizza box solar ovens capable of heating up a marshmallow to the hottest temperature possible during a 10-minute time span. To win, students needed to discover that the goal was not necessarily the design of the ovens, but the ability to build an oven quickly enough to obtain access to one of the optimal lighting and heating sources available in the room. The ovens were exposed to the lights for approximately ten minutes (or longer, depending on how long it took teams to finish), then tested using Infrared thermometers to see whose marshmallow had gotten the hottest. On record, the winning teams’ oven reached 127° Farenheit.