Professor Enrique Barrera on the road to lead energy workshop for high schoolers
Rice University Professor Enrique Barrera returned to his roots with a mission this month.
In collaboration with Lamar University and teachers from Jasper, Tyler and Newton counties in southeast Texas, Barrera is leading an energy workshop for 30 high school students that nicely aligns with the outreach goals of Rice President David Leebron’s Vision for the Second Century.
While the workshop is centered in Jasper, the participants spent June 26 at Rice, where they toured the laboratories of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science professors Barrera and Pulickel Ajayan and labs at the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology.
They also attended lectures by professors Richard Tapia, George Hirasaki, Nobel laureate Robert Curl and Neal Lane, senior fellow in science and technology policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and former science adviser to President Bill Clinton.
An Orange, Texas, native, Barrera said he mentioned to Jay Guerrero, regional director for southeast Texas for Sen. John Cornyn, that he had been looking for a way to connect to his old neighborhood.
In response, Guerrero arranged meetings with Lamar engineering professor Tony Pereira, co-director of the workshop, and later with regional school superintendents. “These tri-county superintendents really followed through,” Barrera said. As a result of the these efforts, the students are receiving a stipend to take part in the workshop, in which they’re learning cutting-edge science about energy-related topics and more. “We’re also teaching life lessons they can use: setting goals, becoming a responsible citizen and a voter, on entrepreneurship and on becoming big thinkers,” Barrera said. “These will help them as they steer their careers.”
There’s a practical component as well. “Each of the groups was assigned a certain topic to research, and this week they’re gathering all the material to make a poster, a pamphlet and a slideshow presentation,” said Clarence Akines, a teacher at Warren High School. “All of that is due on Friday.”
So Tuesday’s trip was a bit of relief from the research and classwork filling the students’ other days. “We ask them to think outside the box,” Barrera said. “We challenge them in a way we think they may not have been challenged until now. That’s how we want to engage them in what we feel is a very important topic.”
Barrera said the workshop will continue for the next two years, and he noted inquiries about expanding to other communities. “We have 11 teachers involved now, all of whom are in disciplines related to the sciences, and they’re putting all the information we’re presenting into modules that they will take back to their classrooms and for other teachers,” he said. “They’ve told me it’s very difficult to get science teachers to work in these rural communities – which I’m sad to hear, because we really want opportunities for these kids in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.”
Funding for the workshop came from the David F. Molina Foundation, Entergy Texas, the Jasper Newton Electric Cooperative, the Jasper Evening Lions Club, the Sam Houston Electric Cooperative, South Hampton Resources, the Jasper-Newton-Tyler School Districts, and Lamar and Rice universities.