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Transforming STEM education, one class at a time

NSF student
A student works experiments with solar cell development during class. View the full slideshow.

Imagine this: solar cells in an "ink" form that could be painted onto household curtains to generate energy; they could be printed on a woman's handbag to harvest sunlight as she walks down the road.

This is not the stuff of a far-fetched dream - this is PHYS 223 at Green River College. With the guidance of instructor Dr. Chitra Solomonson, students work to optimize the performance of these cells in a lab.

Solomonson, along with her colleague Dr. Christine Luscombe at the University of Washington, received a $248,711 grant from the National Science Foundation in 2012. The grant will help Green River create Inquiry Lab Modules for Phys 223 which will be used to introduce research-like labs in the curriculum.  The ultimate goal of the grant is to increase retention in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields by integrating authentic lab experiences into upper-level science classes. In the labs, students learn the principles of research, including formulating research questions, experimental design, and analysis.

The labs focus on developing solar cells from organic materials. Today's commercial solar panels are made of silicon-based semiconductors doped with chemicals like arsenic and gallium. They are difficult to manufacture and expensive to use.

Organic solar cells are made of common carbon-based materials which are cheaper to produce, more efficient, and less harmful to the environment.  However, more research needs to be done to make organic solar cells easier to produce, more efficient, and live longer. This is cutting-edge research and Phys 223 students at Green River are learning to actively engage in it.

Chitra Solomonson
Solomonson holds a light powered by solar ink. View the full slideshow.

Almost half of all college students in Washington state attend community and technical colleges, making two-year schools the entry point for many future STEM professionals. "The STEM pipeline is leaky in many places," explained Solomonson. "Community colleges form a critical link between high school and college for many students, so we need to reach out to both the high schools and to the four-year schools to form collaborations." Solomonson's efforts to bring cutting-edge research into the Green River classroom serve to keep STEM students on track, engaged and interested.

For the students, the project turns abstract concepts into a tangible application; they learn what it means to engage in scientific research. "I was able to create something and then test its efficiency, got to experience failure, and a level of uncertainty in the final outcome," one student said. One quarter of work helped the class understand that they can apply their knowledge to study a physical system that has the potential of solving the energy needs of the world.

Studying science in a laboratory benefits students across the academic spectrum as students discover their strengths within the STEM field.  Through the labs, the top ten percent of students extend their abilities to study a rich, interdisciplinary field. For the average student, this is a way to strengthen their application to a four year school. And the bottom 10 percent of the class benefits greatly by participating in these labs.

"The bottom 10 percent may not have the study skills to excel in an exam, but they may have the experimental skills that enable them to excel in the lab," explains Solomonson. "These research-like labs test students on experimental skills that are equally vital to be successful in science and engineering."

NSF blackberries
A student preps blackberries to create solar cells with. View the full slideshow.

The Green River students who are on track to transfer to a four-year university gain valuable lab research experience that many community colleges cannot provide, giving them a decided advantage in succeeding at their new school. After transferring to UW, one student wrote to Solomonson, "Doing the solar cell project in your class has definitely helped my understanding with the content [here]... I hope to begin another research project next quarter if I can find one suitable and related to my field."

The 25-student spring 2013 class was a great success. This quarter, the labs are making their debut in two more sections of Phys 223.  Solomonson teaches one class of 24 students and physics instructor Caleb Teel teaches a second class of 19.

Their work will extend to two more classes in spring quarter 2014. Physics instructor and Science Division Chair Keith Clay has developed online lectures and accompanying exercises that students will complete on the e-learning site; these materials can easily be adapted to develop extended lab experiences for other STEM classes at Green River.

This summer, Solomonson will conduct a workshop to offer training to instructors in other Washington state community colleges to implement research-like lab experiences for students.  With future funding, this model could, in principle, be adopted by community colleges across the country.