Penn State EnvironMentors team wins first place in national competition

June 12, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A team of Penn State faculty, students and local high schoolers took first place at the 2019 EnvironMentors National Science Fair held last week in Washington, D.C.

EnvironMentors is a national program sponsored by the National Council for Science and the Environment that pairs university faculty and undergraduate students with underrepresented high schoolers who want to gain research experience before college.

Bryttani Wooten, an undergraduate in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, and her mentees, Tyrin-Ian Todd and Natalia Carrasco-Munoz, State College Area High School students, won the poster competition for their work on a project to monitor air quality in West Africa.

“The point of EnvironMentors is to create an opportunity for underrepresented students to get a taste of research at a big university like Penn State and to kind of get their foot in the door in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and really start exploring research in ways that they’ve never even imagined before,” said Wooten, a sophomore studying meteorology and atmospheric science. “Being able to share my knowledge with high school students and expose them to new subjects and things they’ve never really been aware of has been really rewarding.”

The Penn State EnvironMentors chapter provides high school students scheduled time each week with faculty and undergraduate mentors working on real-world research projects. Gregory Jenkins, professor of meteorology, serves as the group’s faculty adviser. He initiated the Penn State chapter, which is supported by the Institutes of Energy and the Environment (IEE).

“We are incredibly thankful that Professor Jenkins took the initiative to organize Penn State’s EnvironMentors chapter,” said Tom Richard, IEE’s director. “This is the newest chapter in the country, and to win first prize in the very first year is a testament to his leadership, as well as to the excellence and commitment of all the faculty and students involved.”

Wooten has been working with two high school students and Jenkins to create a low-cost particle sensor that could eventually be deployed in West Africa, where things like dust storms and indoor cooking practices impact air quality. Air quality problems can go undetected there because of a lack of affordable sensors.

“Our goal is to test the sensor here in State College, and then hopefully deploy it to multiple locations in West Africa so local people can start getting real-time data and know the quality of the air they are breathing,” Wooten said.

“To me, being a mentor means that you want to continue the cycle of learning. In high school, there weren’t a lot of people for me to talk to about pursuing engineering. I want to be there for my mentees in the moments they want to give up because the odds seem entirely stacked against you. I want to help them feel encouraged and to give them the guidance I didn’t have in high school.”

— Matthew Arenas, Penn State industrial engineering student

Wooten and her mentees were one of three teams selected to represent Penn State at the national science fair in June.

Matthew Arenas, a sophomore studying industrial engineering, who also participated in the program, spent the year teaching a high school student the computer programming language MatLab for a research project on carbon dioxide emissions. Natasha Miles, associate research professor in the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, served as faculty adviser.

“I wanted to be a mentor in order to empower students who want to be in STEM fields but don’t have the resources or guidance to navigate through the hardships of choosing their major, understanding the language of engineering and college in general,” Arenas said. “My mentee is still a freshman in high school, so sometimes I have to simplify the math for him. This definitely requires you to think differently than when you’re conducting research on your own.”

In addition to research opportunities, the EnvironMentors program provides high school students with opportunities to participate in field trips and events with guest speakers. Field trips this past year included touring the Millennium Science Complex building and the MorningStar Solar Home at University Park and the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

“To me, being a mentor means that you want to continue the cycle of learning,” Arenas said. “In high school, there weren’t a lot of people for me to talk to about pursuing engineering. I want to be there for my mentees in the moments they want to give up because the odds seem entirely stacked against you. I want to help them feel encouraged and to give them the guidance I didn’t have in high school.”

Diego Caban-Rivera, an undergraduate studying biomedical engineering, worked with a high school student using the Python coding computer language to create a database and map all available data for stream gauges across the United States. The streamflow gauges measure things like water pressure and water flow and are useful in researching water resources. They worked on the project with Alfonso Mejia, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and his graduate student, Michael Gomez.

“My favorite part is failing in front of my mentee,” Caban-Rivera said. “Whenever we’re running through a piece of code or we’re trying to make something happen and it doesn’t work, I tell my mentee that this is exactly what research looks like every single day. Every step of the way you’re going to run into roadblocks, but at Penn State, there’s always someone who can help and so many resources available to us as students here.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 18, 2019