WindSTEP: Pilot Camp Takes Off in Iowa City

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

By Shianne Gruss, Iowa NSF EPSCoR

A new Iowa NSF EPSCoR summer day camp, modeled after a retired National Science Foundation program, was introduced to the University of Iowa this summer – and it looks like it’s here to stay.

Eighteen students from the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids area took part in the inaugural Wind STEM Talent Expansion Program (WindSTEP), which challenged them to develop a model wind energy turbine system for Johnson County. The camp took place June 23-27 on the UI campus, with a visit to Kirkwood Community College.  The program was a joint collaboration between the UI College of Engineering and the Center for Diversity and Enrichment. The program was entitled, “Black Youth Achieving Excellence,” and targeted African American males in grades 8-9.

A second camp, planned for Native American Indian students from the Meskwaki Settlement School in Tama, unfortunately had to be canceled; however, Tracy Peterson, director of diversity programs and K-12 outreach for the UI College of Engineering, said that he will reach out to the Meskwaki Settlement School again next summer. Peterson will also look into possibly offering a residential – or overnight – camp, in which students would have the opportunity to stay in the dorms, eat meals in the dining halls, and spend more time on campus.

While Peterson led the camp, additional instructors included University of Iowagraduate assistants Jessica Rodriguez (geography) and Mary Nyaema (education). You can find a poster titled, “Assessing Impact of WindSTEP in Under-Represented Youth’s Attitudes and Beliefs Towards STEM,” presented by Rodriguez and Nyaema at the 2014 Iowa NSF EPSCoR Annual All-Hands Meeting, here.

Software and Hands-On Experiences Inspired by STEM

Throughout the week, students learned to use ArcGIS software to determine the environmental, social, and physical influences on potential wind farm sites in Johnson County. At the end of the workshop, they presented their findings using PowerPoint.

Peterson said he noticed a greater level of maturity and confidence when the students presented versus on their arrival at camp. He also said the students picked up on the wind jargon used by presenters and professors and used it in their presentations. “I think overall the kids enjoyed it a lot,” Peterson said.

The students also learned about general renewable energy technologies and STEM-related careers. They visited the Kirkwood wind turbine technologies facilities, where David Bennett, energy production & distribution technologies instructor, told them all about the Kirkwood turbine.​

“What’s the hardest skill needed?” one student asked after the group had watched a time-lapse of the Kirkwood turbine assembly.

“Stepping out of a perfectly good turbine,” Bennet replied. While many technical skills are needed, Bennet stressed the courage and safety knowledge needed to climb such a tall feature and then be exposed to high winds and low temperatures. Students were taken through a wind turbine safety presentation, during which a few students suited up for a safe climb in an indoor practice tower shaft.

Other tours included visits to the Iowa Flood Center and UI Hydraulics Wind Tunnel Annex.

Role Models Make STEM Education and Careers Seem Possible

Although the educational benefits of the program were evident, WindSTEP was also an opportunity for underrepresented young students to have an experience on a university campus and be around role models who they can identify with. “It makes college seem like a possibility to them,” Peterson said.

After visiting Kirkwood, students were able to eat lunch with several Iowa NSF EPSCoR summer research interns. Andrew Christ, a returning summer research intern, said the two students he ate lunch with were very interested in talking about sports and math. “As a kid, it’s hard to say, ‘I like numbers,’” Christ said. “I think WindSTEP is an awesome thing to get kids into green energy at a young age.”

Near the end of the camp, students listened to a lecture presented by UI Executive Vice-President and Provost Barry Butler about the history of wind energy. Butler is also the leader of the Iowa NSF EPSCoR wind energy platform. Students were surprised to learn how old the concept of harnessing the wind for energy truly is. However, they were equally interested in how Butler managed to achieve such a high-paying job.

Butler talked about his own academic career and how he got to where he is today. “What you’re doing is challenging,” said Butler. “You have to work hard to get to the end of the race.”