For a rural community like Mackay, Idaho, the impact of an event like Middle School Discovery Day cannot be understated.

“The students and the parent community are all very, very excited,” said Kerry Simmons, who teaches seventh- and eighth-graders in the combined junior high and high school. Simmons, who is responsible for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education at the school, found out this past summer about the Oct. 12 event in Idaho Falls sponsored by Idaho National Laboratory and URENCO, a nuclear fuel company operating uranium enrichment plants in the United States and several other countries.

Mackay, population 477 in 2016, has a connection with INL. Simmons said 24 percent of her students have at least one family member working at the lab. If the students can be awakened to the possibilities that exist for them, they might find jobs that allow them to stay.

“We really want to keep our small community thriving,” Simmons said.

Middle School Discovery Day is designed for students to learn about STEM topics through group work, interactive activities, and challenges that ask them to consider how they can enrich their experience in the classroom.

In the first part of the day, students will investigate a variety of topics, including coding, nanotechnology, magnetism and electricity. They will be introduced to the science behind these topics, and discover more about how they are used in the real world. The second part of the day entails students working in teams to develop what they’ve learned earlier in the day, whether that involves designing an app or finding a new way to use nanotechnology, then making group presentations.

After the winners are announced, in the early afternoon, the class has two stops on its itinerary. First they will get to see the Human System Simulation Laboratory (HSSL), a complete virtual power station control room created to safely test new technologies before they are implemented in the commercial utility industry.

The second stop will be the Biomass Feedstock National User Facility (BFNUF) at the Energy Systems Laboratory, where research is done on how to convert everything from agricultural and forest products to municipal solid waste into fuel for power generation or feedstock for advanced manufacturing. BFNUF is arguably the most complete feedstock preprocessing R&D facility in the world. The visit comes just a few days before National Bioenergy Day, Oct. 18.

“We’ve really adopted a mission mentality in our STEM classes,” Simmons said. “We’re asking, ‘How do we do this? What people do we need? Where will we use this learning in the future?’ We’re really excited about project-based learning.”

Originally from Michigan, Simmons is teaching for a third year in the Lost River Valley. Although she was aware of INL, her impression was that the focus was “all nuclear.” In an encounter in June with Anne Seifert, INL’s STEM education outreach lead, she discovered that her students had the opportunity to learn about clean energy in all of its forms, which is their focus this school year.

“She opened my eyes to everything that’s happening at our national laboratory,” she said. “I’m hoping to come away with a lot of new ideas. I kind of feel like I’ve hit the jackpot.”

INL also helped the district secure a grant for transportation to the event. “We are all looking forward to this,” Simmons said. “The Mackay learning community is excited for the opportunity INL has created for our aspiring engineers to learn more about nuclear science.”


Posted Oct. 9, 2017