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Interdisciplinary grant collaboration helps K-12 students gain exposure to biomanufacturing research and STEM pathways

An interdisciplinary group of NC State scientists, engineers, and educators hosted field trips on campus for 61 high school students and 14 middle school students on Friday, March 3, and Friday, March 10, 2023. The students visited from Vance Charter School, Douglas Byrd High School, Sampson Early College High School, and Salem Middle School. Similar visits were hosted in Fall 2022 with 85 students from high schools in rural Eastern North Carolina. The field trips aimed to give students exposure to a variety of STEM majors and careers, as well as current research being conducted on biomaterials and biomanufacturing. These events were part of a National Science Foundation Eco-Manufacturing of Recyclable Soft Electronics project (PI Dr. Yong Zhu) and the USDA-funded Sustainable Bioproducts and Bioenergy grant program (PI Dr. Richard Venditti).

Middle school and high school students visited NC State and toured the Forest Biomaterials research labs as part of NSF and USDA funded projects.

A total of 25 NC State faculty, graduate students, and a postdoc facilitated the field trips across both days. The NC State groups led the high school students through laboratory rotations in four departments: Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Forest Biomaterials, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Industrial and Systems Engineering. Faculty and graduate students in each department provided guided tours through their research labs and facilities and conducted demonstrations with various equipment. The high school students participated in other activities during their day at NC State, including a Hunt Library tour and lunch on campus. The middle school students conducted a hands-on paper recycling lab activity, followed by a college informational session and Q&A panel with current undergraduate students in the College of Natural Resources.

The field trip was well received by the high school students and teachers. It was an impactful experience for the students, as it was the first time visiting a college campus and seeing research labs for many of them. One student shared, “I had a very good time and was very interested in what everyone was doing. I learned a lot about different professions and graduate school goals.” Another student said, “My idea of what went on in the labs changed since I was able to tour the labs and see the products that they produce.” After the field trip, several students see NC State as an option in their future: “There are many opportunities for me here. This is definitely on my list for future applications.” One teacher commented, “Our students were simply amazed at the campus and appreciative of the hands-on activities in which they got to engage.”

“I was impressed with the curiosity of the students. Many of them knew little about how paper was made and how sustainable and recyclable it can be but were genuinely amazed by the outstanding paper properties (stronger than steel) we discussed. The students had excellent questions about career opportunities in the paper industry sector,” stated Professor Richard Venditti.

During the lab tours, graduate students discussed their research with the visiting students and shared about STEM college and career pathways.