South Dakota Mines Develops Cutting-Edge High School Laboratory for NSF VITAL Prize Challenge
Photo: Dr. Prasoon Diwakar works with a laser and optics in a lab at the Frost Science Museum in Miami, Florida. Diwakar is leading a new effort to put high-end scientific equipment like this into high school laboratories in an effort to boost STEM engagement in young people. Photo Credit: Frost Science Museum, Miami.
A team of mechanical and electrical engineering faculty at South Dakota Mines are in the running for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Visionary Interdisciplinary Teams Advancing Learning, (VITAL) Prize. The Mines team is developing a new hands-on learning program for high school students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The project will be fully NSF-funded if the team continues to be successful in the coming rounds of the competitive process.
Prasoon Diwakar, Ph.D., an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Mines, is leading the effort. He joined collaborators to install a fully functional scientific lab in the Frost Science Museum and the Ransom Everglades High School, both in Miami, Fla. These labs allow students to take on real-world science projects and problems they want to tackle in their own communities.
“We have noticed one of the key things left out of traditional STEM education is hands-on, real-world experiential learning. One thing kids often ask is, ‘Why should we learn math?’ This is part of what we are tackling with our program,” says Diwakar.
Diwakar has teamed up with his spouse Neha Choudhary, who is an instructor of electrical engineering at Mines, two ed-tech entrepreneurs in Miami, Ted Caplow and Nathalie Manzano, and two K-12 educators from Ransom Everglades High School in Florida, Heather Marshall and Kristine Stump. Diwakar started the project before his move to South Dakota Mines and has continued his work as a university faculty member.
In Miami, the high school students in the program devised their own research projects to test fresh and ocean water quality in their surrounding community using cutting-edge scientific instruments, like a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) instrument installed in a lab at their school.
“The students are using laser spectroscopy, novel sampling approaches and machine learning to process the data they gathered. When they learn about the tools they have and the potential for what they can do with a laboratory like this, they get excited about doing the research, and they quickly engage in the effort to help solve real-world problems right in their own backyards,” says Diwakar.
Diwakar began the work in high school STEM education in 2016, and he hopes to bring the same program to Rapid City for both middle and high school students. Mines is now in the top 100 multidisciplinary teams who are competing for top spots in the NSF VITAL Prize Challenge. The next round of projects advancing to the finals will be announced soon.
“My plan is to grow this further because I have personally seen the positive results of this program on students. Between 2016 and 2023, several of the high school students in this program have graduated and gone on to prestigious universities and careers in STEM,” says Diwakar.
For Diwakar, programs like this are of critical importance if the United States wants to remain at the forefront of technology development on the world stage. He says other nations are catching up or surpassing the US, and it’s important for America to make innovative changes in STEM education to keep up.
“If you look at the data, the United States is no longer the top nation in the world with the most patents annually; other countries are now beating us. This shows our innovation is lagging on the world stage. Of the top countries in the world, the US students rank 25nd in math proficiency,” he says. “These numbers show why it’s so important we invest in young people today with new programs like this.”