Increasing Awareness and Opportunities for Women and Minority Students in Sustainable Biomaterials Education
December 17, 2020
The new and rapidly expanding U.S. bioeconomy is providing attractive career opportunities that are not well known by today’s entering college students, high school faculty, and college recruiters. Traditionally, materials science undergraduate programs are directed toward metals and synthetic materials rather than natural, organic materials. Efforts to reduce petroleum dependence and provide biobased fuels and materials are creating career opportunities for students equipped with multidisciplinary skills to use trees and plants to create the sustainable materials and energy needed by society.
Industrial biotechnology, which includes biobased fuels, materials, and chemicals, has experienced the most rapid growth in the new bioeconomy and this trend is projected to continue, yet enrollment of women and minorities remains low in related undergraduate programs such as biological systems engineering, biochemistry, forest products, sustainable biomaterials, and chemical engineering. Perceptions of career barriers such as ethnic or racial discrimination, lack of knowledge of particular fields, and lack of support through the academic pipeline have been suggested as possible hindrances to increasing diversity in certain agricultural and natural resources programs.
To help address the lack of knowledge and missed opportunities for women and minorities, we developed the InsideTREES project. Project activities include designing and offering a model for a high school summer camp and creating educational modules and activity sheets that can be used for remote learning. Previous research and experiences of project personnel indicated that summer camps for high school students are effective in attracting students to a particular field of study. Perception of barriers such as ethnic or racial discrimination and lack of support through the academic pipeline can be changed through education and personal contact. InsideTREES is funded by a grant received from the USDA NIFA Women and Minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Fields Program (WAMS) Award No. 2017-38503-27170. Project director Audrey Zink-Sharp and co-director Robert Smith are joined by graduate research assistant, Sara Cerv in this effort.
We held the inaugural three-day camp program during the summer of 2019 for 12 high school students. Registration was announced on-line and information sent to Virginia Cooperative Extension Agents, social media, and various VT Communications personnel. Response was very positive and we were overwhelmed with applicants within just a couple days. While this was very exciting and encouraging, we could only accept the first group of applicants that provided all registration information required due to budget and housing constraints.
Each of the participants, who ranged from freshmen to rising seniors from a variety of states, had a different idea of what major they might pursue in college and how sustainability or biomaterials could fit into their plans. One participant told us “Sustainability is really important, I think it is such an important change [for the environment] that is growing so much and I want to be a part of that,” said Ashley Tillman, a high school junior from Virginia. Using funds from USDA, we were able to provide all expenses, except transportation to and from Virginia Tech, and personal items for the students. Participants were provided a dorm room in a residence hall on the Blacksburg campus and breakfast, lunch, and dinner at one of Virginia Tech’s award-winning dining facilities. SBIO graduate students served as chaperones and stayed in the dorm with the camp participants.
InsideTREES 2019 Summer Camp Activities included
· A walk through the woods
· What’s inside a tree?
· Daily wood scavenger hunt
· Reading the rings
· Writing with wood
· Making a Chia pet with wood pulp
· A day in the life
· Nothing, Nails, & Glue
· Going with the grain or Knot
· Life Cycle Assessment for real
· Show us what you learned
· And bowling, yes, bowling
We originally planned to offer two summer camps as part of model development and had scheduled the 2nd annual InsideTREES camp for June of 2020, but COVID-19 had other plans. Our project with USDA is scheduled to end January of 2021 so rather than offering a second in-person camp, we are developing instructional modules and activity sheets that can be used for remote learning based on the activities included in InsideTREES. The modules will be available late in Spring 2021. We are still gathering data and making personal contacts with 2019 camp participants, but to date, we are know that at least three of the 2019 group are currently enrolled at Virginia Tech.
More information about the 2019 summer camp can be found here: