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Photo of Toa Veerasethakul and Allie HobbsIgniting Youthful Curiosity
CAER Summer Internship Program

by Jeff Worley

Call researcher Allie Hobbs a junk dealer. She doesn't mind.

"The major focus of my work is to find useful things to do with waste," says Hobbs, an engineering associate in the waste management group at UK's Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER). "The fancy name for what I do is 'beneficiation': taking fly ash, for example, and making a useful product out of it."

She explains that fly ash is the by-product of the burning of coal and that typically this ash is dumped into artificially constructed ponds. "These ponds are costly—they have to be properly lined and so forth. And they obviously take up space that could be used in more environmentally friendly ways," says Hobbs.

So she is interested in trying to make useful products that contain fly ash, and one of these is concrete. She is currently using a mixture of sand, concrete and fly ash molded into cylinders and is testing its strength. And this past summer, Hobbs had "some very good help" with this research.

Since 1993 CAER has operated a high school summer internship program, with UK researchers serving as mentors. This past summer Toa Veerasethakul, now a senior at Franklin County High School, became an intern because of her strong interest in science. Toa (pronounced "tao") eventually plans to go into the medical field.

"One of the things I did was work in the lab in Anderson Hall with Allie," Toa says. "So I got to discover firsthand the different properties and consistencies of the cylinders we tested." In testing the cylinders' strength, she found that certain types of ash have cementation properties and others don't. "The company that produces this fly ash wants cement strong enough so you can walk on it, yet they don't want it too strong that they can't go back and dig it up if they need to."

Hobbs and Toa did their experiments using a triaxal compressor, a piece of equipment consisting of two upright steel bars and a platform at the base. A compressed cylinder composed of a specific percentage of fly ash, sand and water is placed on the platform and secured at the top by a metal cap. The platform moves upward at a rate of half an inch per minute. A computer measures durability of the cylinder as the pressure on it increases.

"We're interested in measuring the point at which the cylinder fails—crumbles and then cracks apart," says Hobbs, who was impressed with Toa's "many intelligent questions." "We're basically trying different mixes to get it to this point."

Toa says that this two-week program was a tremendously valuable experience for her. "Allie was great. She guided me but then let me try things myself, let me see how things work rather than just telling me. It was also fun."

At the final meeting of the two-week internship, Toa and the other five students from central Kentucky high schools gave presentations on what they'd learned at UK. "This seems to be a natural and appropriate kind of closure for the program, as well as a way for the students to formally share their new knowledge," says Marybeth McAlister, who administers the program. McAlister, publications and public relations manager at CAER, explains that the idea for this program grew out of an earlier attempt to reach out to young people interested in science.

"In 1993 we had a day program for local high school students. Typically, a chemistry class would come and they'd have a nice tour of the labs for an hour. But I thought, how much can they get out of an hour? So I began tinkering with the idea of something on a much larger scale." McAlister subsequently talked with Frank Derbyshire, CAER director, and the two decided to significantly expand the program, funding it initially, Derbyshire is quick to point out, "with our own money."

He is also quick to point out that any successes the program has celebrated are due to McAlister's tireless work. She not only develops and organizes the program, and does all the paperwork from her office at CAER, she also drives to neighboring counties to interview students who "look right for the program on paper," Derbyshire says.

Photo of Marybeth McAlisterMarybeth McAlister, who administers the CAER program, says many of the students later speak of the internship as a pivotal experience.

"I make appointments with either their counselors or high school teachers in each of the schools. It's important for me to talk face-to-face with these students," she says, "to try to make sure of their level of interest and to see if we have a useful match for them among the volunteer mentors at CAER." Students selected are given a stipend from CAER of $400 for the two weeks, they are reimbursed for any travel expenses, and they are housed in one of the UK dorms, where they eat free in the cafeteria. CAER also hires resident advisors who drive the students in a van back and forth from the dorm to CAER, located nine miles from the Lexington campus.

Part of the summer curriculum also includes two field trips. This past summer students were taken to a mine an hour west of Lexington, near Elizabethtown, and to a coal-burning power plant.

"I loved this part of the program," says Josh Northcutt, a senior at Harrison County High School. "We got to see a drag bin operate and stand inside it." Josh spent two weeks working with several mentors, primarily chemical engineer Dennis Sparks. "I spent a lot of time with him troubleshooting—fixing small problems with reactors in the building," Josh says. "And one day I helped him build a new reactor from scratch."

The other students worked in the areas of coal liquefaction, coal preparation and carbon materials synthesis.

"Although CAER has been part of the university since the inception of the center, we've traditionally been seen as strictly a research unit," Derbyshire says. "And while the bulk of our activity necessarily has to be in that area, we've been working very hard for the last 10 or 11 years to also include teaching and community outreach as part of what we do. I believe this summer program accomplishes both."

One other very important thing the program has accomplished is garnering the financial support of EPSCoR, the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. This Department of Energy program, with matching state funds, has supported the summer internship program since 1997 with a grant of $56,000 a year.

"If we want to create and continue an effective interface between the high schools and the university, we need to dedicate some resources to this, so we're obviously hoping that we can continue to attract funding for this program," Derbyshire says.

In part for the requirements of their federal funding and in part for their own information, McAlister sends material yearly to former program participants. "We want to know where they are and what they're doing, what kind of influence the work they did here has had on their lives," McAlister says. From a look at the responses from the most recent mailing, she says many of the students talk about their internship as a "pivotal experience."

"It's rewarding to see how many have gone into engineering or into the sciences," she says. "That makes all the work worth it. It makes us feel like we're doing something really positive and far-reaching."

Thirty-eight students have participated in the CAER program since 1993.

A sad note: As this article was going to press, Frank Derbyshire, CAER director, passed away while on a trip to England. See tribute.