Youth get hands-on lessons in biofuels, food engineering, robotics

Carlos Zuniga, doctoral student in Biological Systems Engineering, introduces LMS students to a thermal camera.

Graduate students from CAHNRS’ Department of Biological Systems Engineering brought their research to life for students at Lincoln Middle School in Pullman.

In three 2016 visits, student researchers shared concepts in areas like food engineering, bioenergy and agricultural automation with middle school students in science teacher Marla Haugen’s class.

Be like a termite

“We wanted to help the younger generation know what’s happening in biofuels,” said doctoral scholar Innu Chaudhary, who led five students from Dr. Shulin Chen’s laboratory in sharing their National Science Foundation-funded research on fuel made from sustainable crops. 

To capture students’ interests, the WSU teams put science in their hands. In Chaudhary’s visit, students passed around a riddled block of termite-nibbled wood, illustrating WSU efforts to replicate the tiny insects’ mastery of lignin—tough structural molecules that slow down the process that turns plant matter into sugars and ultimately, fuel.

“Termites eat wood—a lot of it,” said Chaudhary. “We’ve found that termites can remove almost all lignin and have 98 percent sugar conversion in their gut. Our goal is to create a biomimic—a catalyst that mimics what happens inside a termite.”

The WSU students also made hands-on, wood and wire models of plant cells. Youths had to tug and pull to free wooden “carbohydrate” cores from a cage of “lignin.”

“We wanted them to feel how energy-intensive it is to remove lignin,” said Chaudhary.

Lincoln Middle School students learn about biofuels research during a WSU visit.

In the grand finale, two teams of middle school students competed in knowledge challenge that helped them prepare for their own science bowl. Chaudhary was impressed by how much they learned, and how much they already knew.

“This was the first time I visited a middle school in the United States, and I loved the experience,” she said. “I would love to do it again.”

A taste of science

“Everyone eats, and kids love food,” said graduate student Atisheel Kak, who gave lessons in food packaging and processing with fellow Food Engineering Club members. “We focused on the basics and fun.”

Club members asked questions like “Why do you need to process our food?” (The answer: potentially harmful bacteria), then gave students a sensory taste-test of milk products, such as condensed and powdered milk. The lesson helped drive home the importance of food packaging in preserving food quality.

“Students could see and taste the difference,” Kak said. “They told us they didn’t realize how much goes into food packaging.”

Water-saving robots

In a third visit, students peered through a thermal camera brought by doctoral student Carlos Zuniga, president of the Agricultural Automation and Engineering Club.

Talking with students about the importance of automation to our food supply, Zuniga and masters student Chongyuan Zhang shared research and videos on flying drones and apple-picking robots.

“We want to know how plants are ‘feeling,’” Zuniga said. “To do that, we use sensors.”

His special cameras gauge plant health by temperature. Mounted on a drone, the camera could help farmers give their crops just the right amount of water and nutrients at the right time, saving resources.

“The students were very excited about the thermal camera,” said Zuniga. “When you have an interested audience, you’re motivated to work harder and do better. If just one student stays interested in studying automation, my effort has paid off.”

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