Turning food into energy

May 13, 2009 4:54:49 PM PDT
HISD students are getting a hands-on lesson on the future of alternative energy. Soon they could be using scraps from the cafeteria to power their own science lab and that's just the beginning.The Booker T. Washington School for the Engineering Professions is the top-ranked magnet school in what's considered the north quadrant of HISD.

It's a simple equation: talented students with a knack for science multiplied by one amazing teacher and the result could affect us all.

It is not your typical science class assignment.

"We're running out of food scraps. Let's put it this way so we need to collect some more and we're gonna grind up some food today," said Dr. Nghia Le.

There is nothing typical about Dr. Le's new science energy program that sends students on a mission to the cafeteria searching out the makings of biofuel.

"Take the meat off the bones," said one student, digging through the cafeteria trash can.

Back in class, students are refining the leftovers into one mass as part of one big research project to see whether it can eventually be used to power their science lab. It's similar in theory to what Texas A&M University is doing on a big research scale, but here at Booker T. Washington School for the Engineering Professions, Dr. Le adapted it to the high school level, using materials at hand and kitchen gadgets.

"I look for projects that are innovative, that are fascinating for students to attract them to engineering," said Dr. Le.

His students must have engineering aptitude to be accepted into the magnet program, but it's Dr. Le's job to bring out their talent despite the materials they work with.

"It does get icky sometimes, but you're doing it for your learning and for science. What's not icky about science?" said engineering student Kingrix Fernandes.

Another engineering student, Chris Foster, said, "It's neat. It's like we're making history and it's important to us."

They're making history because Washington is the first high school in the country to launch such a research project. The students are bright high-achievers who will be the engineers of tomorrow and, equally important, their teacher said they may help lower the cost and increase the supply of energy in years to come.

"Now students can see directly what they're learning and how it can be applicable to make lives more comfortable for those who need it most," said Dr. Le.

The principal says Washington high school now has some of the highest TAKS test scores in the district because of the exceptional students enrolled in the engineering program. One of them will be going to college and grad school on a full-ride scholarship from the Gates Foundation. The research will be put to the test this summer.

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