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Graduate Fellows 2014

Graduate Research Fellows
Balukas, Denise

Balukas, Denise

My interest in communicating atmospheric science to the non-scientific community has led me to my current research work at the University of Arizona, which focuses on the societal impacts of landfalling tropical cyclones. I am approaching this subject with a global perspective and attempting to address the combination of factors within communities, which determine their vulnerability to the impacts of tropical cyclones as well as their resilience in the aftermath. In partnership with the National Weather Service, I will be working with J.J. Brost (Science Operations Officer) here in the Tucson office to develop a series of three teaching modules designed for middle and high school students which will explore the risks of high impact, low frequency weather events on communities and the methods by which decisions are made to reduce the vulnerabilities of communities to the associated risks.

The modules will use hurricanes as an example of such high impact events. The modules will culminate in students participating in a board game which J.J. Brost and I designed to address the question of communication and comprehension of vulnerabilities with respect to rare but inevitable extreme weather events and the ability to make critical decisions based on probabilistic uncertainty forecasting. Using the Tucson Flood of 1983, which was the result of extremely high precipitation amounts caused by the remnants of tropical storm Octave as an example of a rare but inevitable extreme meteorological event, the students are placed in the role of a city planner, making decisions on mitigation strategies for several different locations within their town. The modules can provide an approachable way of investigating the process of planning for high impact/ low frequency events and investigate any bias involved in the decision making process due to lack of personal experience with such an event.

Baynes, Cayla

Baynes, Cayla

I am a third year Ph.D. student in the Biomedical Engineering Graduate Interdisciplinary Program.  My research focuses on developing low-cost medical devices for the identification, detection, and quantification of cancer biomarkers using a paper-based platform.

My outreach project is a weekly afterschool club at Elvira Elementary School named Operation S.O.A.R.  The students learn about engineering design and teamwork as they work through lessons based on situations that astronauts might encounter on a long journey.  Learning how sensors work and how to construct them is a major theme in this program.  The other major theme in this afterschool club is how biomedical engineering can help individuals monitor their health using an everyday device – a smartphone. 

Chen, Sophia

Chen, Sophia

I am a first-year physics Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona, researching utility-scale solar energy in Dr. Alex Cronin’s lab.   I am passionate about environmental issues such as pollution, energy security, and climate change. In addition to their technical elements, I am also interested in the social aspects of these issues, particularly promoting interdisciplinary and cross-cultural communication.  I spent a year in China on a Fulbright fellowship researching coal-related pollution.  While there, I taught environmental awareness classes to Chinese students to help bridge the gaps between our perspectives.   Outreach—raising environmental awareness and capturing the interest of a new generation of scientists—is essential to this line of work.  The Space Grant allows me to communicate with different groups of people about these environmental issues.

I help organize and coordinate a high school solar go-kart competition run by Tech Parks Arizona at the University of Arizona Tech Park called Racing the Sun (RTS).  The program is in its third year, and participating schools come from all over Arizona, including Tucson, Phoenix, and Monument Valley areas.  Students design, build, and race solar-powered go-karts under the mentorship of two high school teachers.  The participants gain skills in electronics and engineering in a fun, hands-on setting.  In the spirit of interdisciplinary education, the program also has an entrepreneurial component:  the students fundraise the cost of the go-kart.  I connect academics and industry professionals to mentor these high school students, and I help to organize and teach workshops.  The program seeks to promote interest in STEM and to help students begin to develop the skills necessary for such careers.

Coe, Michelle

Coe, Michelle

Michelle Coe: My NASA Space Grant Graduate Fellowship involves incorporating Manzo Elementary's restoration ecology program into the classroom. I am doing this by implementing projects occurring at Biosphere 2's Landscape Evolution Observatory (LEO) into Manzo Elementary's greenhouse. One of Manzo's 4th grade classes will be learning and replicating projects happening at the LEO site, as well as visiting the Biosphere 2 twice during the school year. Projects occurring in Manzo and LEO's greenhouses will include hypothesizing, data collection, and analyzing native seedlings planted on LEO soil. Furthermore, we will be looking at variables such as variation in aspect, temperature, and soil moisture as these variables may occur in a natural landscape. This will help the children get a sense of how their research and projects can relate to science on a larger scale (both in terms of the LEO project and climate change projections), as well as allow a new and innovative area for math, science, and English skills to be incorporated into their curriculum. The classroom outline at Manzo Elementary includes 1 hour lesson plans and 2 hours in the greenhouse each week, where the children review concepts, collect data, and learn vocabulary focused on climate change, landscape, vegetation and more.

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The Arizona Space Grant Consortium is proud to support this impressive STEM education program at Tucson’s Manzo Elementary school through the efforts of UA Graduate Fellow Michelle Coe. Michelle speaks about her program with Manzo students in a PBS AZPM video segment.

Video from "Local Kids Benefit from Nationally Recognized Ecology Program" by Mitchell Riley

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Fall 2014 Update

Manzo Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona is an innovator in using reconciliation ecology as a tool to offer experiential learning and address children’s behavioral issues. Their ecology program has improved and supported the school’s larger educational objectives by enabling students to be more inclined to learn. In January of 2012, Manzo received the U.S. Green Building Council’s “Best Green School” award. Despite impressive infrastructural innovations and accolades, teachers have yet to fully embrace the opportunity to link classroom teaching to the multifaceted aspects of the ecology program. To address this disconnect, this program connects the science students are learning in weekly sessions at Manzo to scientific experiments occurring at Biosphere 2 (B2) in Oracle, Arizona. Manzo Elementary has partnered with B2’s flagship experiment by reproducing a model Landscape Evolution Observatory (LEO) within Manzo’s greenhouse, testing what types of seeds and saplings will grow in the observatory’s soil. The goal is to create experiential learning programs appropriate for the classrooms that have real and tangible benefits for ongoing research. In so doing, a win-win-win scenario is created: (i) Manzo students conduct science, mathematically process results, and write reports based on their work; (ii) B2 scientists receive augmented datasets about the early ecology of Landscape Evolution Observatory soils; and (iii) B2 educators acquire a template for experiential learning that can be adapted for other classrooms in the area. These activities connect students to contemporary climate change problems such as climate variability and drought and are synchronous with the development of Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) science and math skills. As the second year of this program begins, we have begun working with Ms. Norma Gonzales’ 3rd grade classroom at Manzo Elementary. We hope to expand the mini LEO project and curriculum to other schools within TUSD at the beginning of January, 2015 with help from graduate student assistants from the University of Arizona and the School and Community Gardening Program. 

Howlett, Isela

Howlett, Isela

Isela is working with the Girl Scouts of Southern Arizona to bring the world of optics to the different troops in the area. As the outreach coordinator for Women in Optics (WiO), Isela has a passion for introducing people to the study of optics and light. Through the partnership with the Girl Scouts of Southern Arizona, Isela will work with the College of Optical Science and WiO to showcase the optical science museum and further develop the optical science demo kits.

Thomas, Joseph

Thomas, Joseph

I am a fifth year graduate student in the Mathematics PhD program at the University of Arizona. I study discrete differential geometry, a branch of mathematics with applications in areas like computer graphics, engineering, and animation.

My fellowship project, "Geometry in Context," involves creating a series of short films that can be used as teaching aids in high school geometry classrooms. Each films will illustrate an important concept from geometry and is accompanied by a collection of in-class activities designed to help connect the mathematical ideas from the films to topics in engineering and the space sciences.