Common purpose, Shared Goals, and Community: The Learning, Emotional, and Social implications of a shared research vision.
The challenge of sustainably meeting the world’s energy demand—the “terawatt challenge”—has been described as the defining challenge of this generation. Many of the most pressing world issues today are fundamentally intertwined with energy, ranging from climate change to poverty. Photovoltaic (PV) devices are the most promising sustainable energy source, and have made the transition from lab to fab in the past decade. Provided that the PV industry maintains its present growth rates, it can provide all of the new electricity required by the world within a decade, and it can meet the world’s total energy demand by 2050 However, motivated and innovative engineers in both academia and industry are needed to achieve this goal.
The aim of the proposed REU site was to provide undergraduate students with experiences that introduce them to research generally and solar research specifically, give them the necessary skills to understand and contribute to today’s PV challenges, and galvanize them into pursuing advanced engineering degrees and careers that tackle the terawatt challenge.
Goal to provide undergraduate students and young scholars with an opportunity to engage in projects at the forefront of photovoltaics research using the unique solar facilities and institutional experience at ASU. This research aims to improve the efficiency and reduce the cost of crystalline silicon solar cells and modules, thereby both contributing to the terawatt challenge and providing undergraduate participants with an authentic experience in engineering research. Students work in small teams supported by graduate mentors, the pilot line Lab Manager, and the PIs to design experiments, perform measurements, analyze the results, and report their findings. At the end of the summer all students participate in culminating poster presentation.
The broader impact objectives of the REU program were to engage undergraduate students in solar research; encourage students from community colleges and minority-serving institutions to begin, continue, or extend their studies in STEM fields; encourage undergraduate students from four-year universities to continue on to graduate school; and contribute to the recruitment and retention of well-trained women and under-represented minorities. The REU students’ laboratory experience was enhanced by seminars and workshops that provide students with access to experts in a wide range of fields including PV research and development, the social science of energy usage, sustainability, and the solar energy industry. The program also included a number of social activities designed to encourage formal and informal communication skills, collaborative problem solving, some good fun, and teamwork with colleagues from diverse cultural, geographic, and demographic backgrounds.
Two features of the Summer Research Program are the facilities (a industrial scale Si solar cell fabrication line) and the cohort experience. The student-led pilot line facility it is uniquely designed to allow students to rapidly learn the processing techniques. It can also accommodate a large group of interacting students plus the associated graduate mentors and Lab Manager. With only two weeks’ training, students can independently fabricate a complete solar cell.
A unique feature of the QESST summer programs was the cohort experience. Our REU program is carefully designed to support a strong cohort experience for all participating students.
In the proposed REU, students will share one large lab (the pilot line) with their peers. The students will be placed in small groups (2-3) matched based on interest and background, and students in these groups work together on individual research projects. Each research group share training experiences and their research overlaps in content (silicon solar cells), yet each group has a distinct project. This spatiotemporal and content overlap fosters a feeling that the students are members of a promising group of photovoltaics engineers, and facilitates learning mechanisms outside of the supervisor-student structure (e.g., peer-to-peer). Multiple opportunities for informal mentorship and support are offered. Students gather every morning to check-in with staff, and for lunch—graduate mentors, faculty, guest speakers, and REU students eat lunch together. These informal interactions with the staff and faculty provide students with the opportunity to ask questions, and will provide the faculty and staff with opportunities for formative feedback to make mid-summer course corrections as needed. Students, faculty, staff, and young scholars from across the ERC program gather at the end of the summer programs. They all participate in a poster session, each team of students present their research findings and have an opportunity to speak with faculty, graduate students and members of industry.
The outcomes of the summer program were twofold: first the QESST student-led pilot line increased it's solar cell efficancys in the labratory - putting to rest some worries that large student projects can reduce the laboratories scientific mission. Second it has succeeded in supporting non-traditional students engage in engineering researcher. Since the summer of 2012 QESST has evaluated 4 summer programs and collected outcome data. A total of 40 students participated in undergraduate summer programs, 31 of those students remained in contact with QESST evaluators. Of these students, 100% have either graduated in engineering or have continued in their engineering majors. Many of these young men and women who have graduated have pursued majors or careers in the energy field.
The cohort REU training model has been extended to another training center project (Nanotechnology Infrastructure Center - Southwest) and is the foundation of a newly funded REU site.
Across the four years of the program one third of the participants were women and one third were underrepresented minorities. These students were all successful in completing the program and have all successfully either completed their degree or are currently on track to complete an engineering degree.
The summer program is in the process of scaling up to include other ERC programs and NSF funded centers. Evaluation of the REU program was presented at the IEEE Photovoltaic Specialty Conference. (Pickett, et al., 2013)
The challenge to develop PV curriculum accessible to undergraduates and engage women and under-represented minority students. QESST summer research program faced three opportunities/threats in its first year, 2012. The first is that a basic curriculum to support undergraduate learning of PV had not been established, the second was the need by the ERC program to establish a new laboratory - while hosting a large REU summer program requiring laboratory resources, the Third was the more traditional problem of providing research opportunities for students from untraditional backgrounds in highly technical content.
In typical department-wide REU programs, students are split among many disparate labs and they work on many disparate topics. A challenge in this environment is that the REU students—surrounded by only graduate students and postdocs—may feel vulnerable and afraid to ask “dumb” questions; they may also have trouble discussing their research with their REU peers because of the large spread in subject matter. For example, the PI spent a summer as an REU student studying Diesel exhaust while his fellow REU students investigated everything from nanoparticle synthesis to cornea replacements to robotic arms. Dinner conversations did not tend to focus on the day’s research. Thus students who may not have a community at their home university that would support the development of a research identity may not have the opportunity to develop a research identity during summer research programs.
Pickett, G., Husman, J., *Ross, K., Shell, D.F., *Nelson, K., Bowden, S.G. (June, 2013). Student-led solar cell fabrication pilot line: Engaging the next generation of PV engineers. Poster presented at the 39th IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference, Tampa, FL.