Solar Road Trip | December 5, 2011 Issue - Vol. 89 Issue 49 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 89 Issue 49 | p. 40
Issue Date: December 5, 2011 | Web Date: December 6, 2011

Solar Road Trip

Project iLASER engages Hispanic students in hands-on activities
Department: Education
Keywords: Outreach, International Year of Chemistry, Hispanic, Education
Students from Carman Elementary School in San Juan, Texas, test a dye-sensitized solar cell that they built.
Credit: David Brown
Students from Carman Elementary School in San Juan, Texas, participate in Project iLASER.
Students from Carman Elementary School in San Juan, Texas, test a dye-sensitized solar cell that they built.
Credit: David Brown

This past September, in celebration of the International Year of Chemistry, David R. Brown packed the back of a U-Haul truck with supplies for activities in light and solar energy. He embarked on a monthlong road trip to do outreach with elementary school children living along the 2,000-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border from California to Texas. Brown, a chemistry professor at Southwestern College, in Chula Vista, Calif., visited elementary schools and Boys & Girls Clubs near border crossing points, where Hispanic communities are concentrated.

Teaching at a two-year college just 8 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, Brown understands the challenges that Hispanic students can face in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The Hispanic population “is the fastest growing and perhaps the least engaged in STEM,” Brown says. “That combination instills in me a sense of urgency to do something.”

Hispanics continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields. According to a September 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economics & Statistics Administration, Hispanics have accounted for most of the increase in the overall U.S. workforce since 2000; the percentage of Hispanics in the U.S. workforce increased from 10% in 2000 to 14% in 2009. Yet the percentage of Hispanics in the STEM workforce rose by only 1%—from 5% in 2000 to 6% in 2009.

Through Project iLASER (investigations with Light & Sustainable Energy Resources), which is supported by a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Brown hopes to inspire more Hispanic students to enter STEM fields. “I think the more diverse the group of folks who are out there solving problems, the better the solutions that are going to come along,” he says.

David Brown's iLASER project brings hands-on activities in solar and light energy to students at Jefferson Elementary School.
Credit: Harlingen CISD

In September, students participated in hands-on activities such as building and testing dye-sensitized solar cells and learned about the properties of light. Brown says he centered his outreach activities on light and solar energy because he wanted to expose the students to real-life problems.

Ludivina Avila, a chemistry professor at South Texas College, in McAllen, who assists in some of the iLASER activities, says she hopes the project has an impact on these students’ lives. If the program gives young children an awareness and excitement about science, “then maybe they’ll continue to want to study science when they get to high school and college,” she says.

As a Caucasian male, Brown acknowledges that he can’t serve as a culturally relevant role model for the students that he works with, but he does have personal experience with how education can change a person’s life. Raised in the 1960s by a single mother, Brown came from blue-collar roots. Brown’s mother was a nurse at a hospital in East St. Louis, Ill. His grandfather, a steelworker, served as a father figure.

Brown admits that he didn’t enjoy chemistry when he was in high school, but he grew to love the subject as an undergraduate student. Brown earned a B.S. degree in chemistry from Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, in 1982 and completed a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 1990. He moved to Southern California by way of a postdoc at the University of California, San Diego, and has remained there since.

In addition to the hands-on activities, Brown also communicated the research efforts of prominent solar scientists like Harry B. Gray of California Institute of Technology. For example, students learned about Caltech’s Powering the Planet Center for Chemical Innovation (CCI Solar) effort to power the planet with clean, sustainable energy sources that are cost-competitive with petroleum and other fossil fuels.

Brown “showcased our NSF CCI Solar ‘Juice from Juice’ project at every stop he made along the way,” Gray says. “In this project, students make their own solar cells using conducting glass and berry juice. They loved the science they learned from David, and he gave them a real appreciation for what science can do to make the world a better place.”

Luis Echegoyen, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP), says the real value of what Brown is doing is in generating momentum among others to help Hispanic students gain more access to STEM education. As a result of Brown’s visit, Echegoyen says, one of the Boys & Girls Clubs in El Paso is launching a science academy with the help of UTEP. “This whole thing has been a complete offshoot of what David did,” Echegoyen says. “People like David can make a big difference.”

Brown is planning a second road trip in spring 2012 and hopes to take a sabbatical next year to devote more time to Project iLASER. He is also working on educational videos to leave with the venues he visits. His hope is “that these children, who already see science as cool, get their hands on” some activities and that the experiences have “an irreversible positive impact on them.”

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society
Dr. Warren Hioki (Wed Dec 07 12:45:39 EST 2011)
Dr. Brown,

I applaud your NSF outreach work in promoting STEM, particularly light and solar energy, to elementary school children along the US-Mexico border. The video clip clearly shows how you have successfully captured the interest of Jefferson Elementary school children who might not have had the opportunity to learn about light and solar energy without your iLASER hands-on project. Keep up the great work! I wish you all the best in your 2012 iLASER journey.
Scott Donnelly (Fri Dec 09 12:35:20 EST 2011)

Kudos to you for your tireless efforts to promote science and its noble attempt to bring rational sense in explaining how the physical world, both seen and unseen, works. The natural, inquisitive curiosity inherent in children of all cultures, backgrounds, and gender serves an as enviable starting point to kick-start educating the next generation of technological problem-solvers. Keep fighting the good fight.


Scott Donnelly
Dr. Oscar Rebolledo (Sat Dec 10 15:52:29 EST 2011)

Congratulations on a great program! It was great seeing the kids faces light up and enjoy learning about chemistry and physics. It is rare when we get to experience such an event, let alone a traveling U-haul truck full of great science projects. Happy holidays and thanks for helping make the IYOC 2011 a great success.
Winona Gossett (Thu Dec 22 09:32:13 EST 2011)
Good Job! It was great watching the video. I think everyone should know that during this entire time that you where traveling all over Texas. You found the time to come home to Illinois and take care of your mother. Whom has been sick in a nursing home. Dr. Brown is a good man and a great friend. See Ya. around the camp fire.
Brenda Fick (Wed Apr 04 16:44:09 EDT 2012)
This is awesome work David. You have made science fun! (if only you were my science teacher lol) This is a learning experience for these children that they will never forget. Just the spark needed to light them on fire for Science.
Take care old friend.
Christine Brooms (Tue Apr 15 20:47:02 EDT 2014)
This looks absolutely amazing. The students are fortunate to have such a visionary and caring person among them. Keep up the great work.

Leave A Comment

*Required to comment