The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Orange STEM: UT links East Tennessee students with Science, Technical, Engineering and Math studies

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327549472 642836650863409 3091744227317001155 nHigh school students from across East Tennessee got to check out the latest career offerings in fields like robotics and virtual reality at the Jan. 21 Big Orange STEM event.  JJ Stambaugh/Hellbender Press

The TN Lunabotics, science and sustainability get together at BOSS event

KNOXVILLE What do environmental, social and economic sustainability have in common?

There are numerous ways to answer that question, but for those who pay close attention to education or economics it’s an accepted fact that the future belongs to societies that invest heavily in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). 

That’s why educators at all levels are pushing students towards those subjects at every opportunity, as was evidenced Jan. 21 at Big Orange STEM Saturday (BOSS) at the University of Tennessee.

About 150 high school students picked from communities across East Tennessee spent much of their Saturday at John C. Hodges Library, getting a first-hand taste of what awaits them should they choose to pursue careers in STEM through the UT system.

The officials in charge of the annual event ensured the visitors got to check out everything from the latest in robotics and virtual reality to an all-they-could eat meal at one of the campus cafeterias. They were also not afraid to milk pop culture for all it was worth to help spark their charges’ interests.

“This year’s theme is ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’,” said Laura Knight, an assistant professor of practice in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and co-chairperson of the event. “We are, as STEM people, the guardians of our future. We have the obligation and the ability to make things better in the future in so many different ways.”

Sustainability was the key concept that ran through Saturday’s conference, Knight explained.

“We try to make sustainability a part of everything we do,” she explained. “It’s not just about how we can recycle.”

The keynote speakers, in fact, were the members of a student organization comprised primarily of undergraduates who will be competing this year at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center against similar teams from across the country.

The group, dubbed The Tennessee Lunabotics, explained they  must come up with a robotic mission to the Moon and then effectively build it from scratch.

“We are meant to send a rover into a simulated lunar environment and it’s meant to mine gravel that exists beneath the surface of the moon,” explained Michael Fox, a major in aerospace engineering who was instrumental in putting together the team in 2021.

“This gravel has a bunch of materials that we’d like to have when we return to the moon later on this decade as part of the Artemis program,” Fox said. “There’s ice, potentially metals or helium. Once they’ve been collected they would be refined and transformed into materials we need like drinking water, construction materials, and rocket fuel.”

Makayla McKinney, who is studying computer engineering and German, explained how the Lunabots differ from other student groups.

“Even though we are a UT organization and a student organization, we function more like a startup,” she said. “We fundraise for ourselves, we design for ourselves …. At a lot of schools it’s a senior design project, but for us it’s a fun hobby.”

To many people, of course, the term “sustainability” generally refers to problems that are more down-to-Earth than lunar missions.

Although the Lunabots were the keynote speakers, most of the exhibitions and activities were concerned with showing how STEM can be used to give practical solutions to environmental and societal threats.

A pair of biologists from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, for instance, manned a table covered with flora and fauna in addition to a microscope that let the curious examine a sample of the infamous hemlock woolly adelgid, which has been killing trees in Great Smoky Mountains National Park since they were first discovered there in 2002.

Katy Kilbourne, plant pathologist, described how the state works with firewood producers to protect Tennessee’s ecosystems.

“Since 2021, we actually have a firewood quarantine that requires that all firewood imported into the state has to be heat treated,” Kilbourne said. “Firewood is actually an important vector for both insects and diseases.”

Also on hand were representatives from the One Health Initiative, a movement that seeks to bring together scientific authorities from a wide range of disciplines to tackle biological threats.

“It’s an approach to science that considers the health of humans, plants, animals, and the environment and how they’re connected to one another,” said Kimberlyn Roosa, a postdoctoral researcher in public health who specializes in infectious disease modeling. 

Roosa’s partner at the event, One Health administrative specialist Alyssa Merka, used the plight of leatherback sea turtles to demonstrate how the movement aims to solve problems. 

“Most leatherback sea turtles are being born female because of rising ocean temperatures,” Merka said. “Also, the stress and pollutants have caused a great many mutations. How do you remedy that? You need people from different backgrounds taking a holistic approach to develop solutions.”

BOSS, which is in its 12th year, was the brainchild of Thura Mack, who co-chairs the event and is also the Coordinator for Community Learning Services and Diversity Services for University Libraries.

To Mack, BOSS is an ideal way to put UT’s immense library system at the forefront of academic recruitment efforts.

“I wanted our students to see our library in a different way, as an educational hub for the university and for our community,” Mack said. “I wanted the students to not only see it but to be part of it … to help them get a sense of how incredible university life could be. I want them to imagine themselves doing STEM and art, and I wanted us to be a key player in introducing our students and making them feel welcome in our spaces.”

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