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NSF Scholarships Allow Students to Explore Renewable Energy

September 27, 2012

Two Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) students are receiving a unique opportunity to conduct research with University of Kansas experts in renewable energy and learn how to integrate sustainable development practices into their future careers through a National Science Foundation (NSF) scholarship.

EECS students Angela Wright and Reba Liggett
EECS students Angela Wright and Reba Liggett

EECS students Reba Liggett and Angela Wrightare beginning their second year as recipients of the NSF Scholarship in Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S-STEM). The S-STEM program provides renewable three-year scholarships up to $10,000 for KU students who are interested in renewable energy and majoring in a STEM discipline. The program recruits academically talented and underrepresented students with financial need and provides them with mentoring and research and professional development activities.

“Finding new ways to develop power sources using renewable energy methods has always been a passion of mine, and when I saw this opportunity to learn from and network with major players conducting renewable energy research, I knew I had to go for it,” said Liggett, who hopes to work in solar energy storage after she graduates this spring.

According to program director Judy Wu, distinguished professor of physics and astronomy at KU, Liggett and Wright were ideal selections for the inaugural class of KU S-STEM scholars. The program aims to unite the University’s expertise and resources in renewable energies to train the next generation. The Kansas Center for Solar Energy Research runs the KU S-STEM program, which is in its second year of a three-year grant.

After graduating with her English degree from KU in 2008, Liggett moved home to Mankato and became a staff reporter for a nearby town’s newspaper. Doubting the sustainability of small town newspapers and her interest in writing for them, Liggett enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and began training in July 2009. A previously undiagnosed medical condition led to Liggett’s discharge during basic training.

The unexpected turn of events led Liggett to reassess her future plan. She had left KU wanting to make the world a little better place, and with that goal in mind, she returned to Mount Oread in 2010. This time Liggett is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering that will allow her to help advance renewable energy.   

Liggett first learned about the S-STEM scholarship through a KU tweet about a new scholarship for students interested in renewable energy. Liggett was interested not only in the financial resources but also in the faculty mentoring and renewable energy projects. S-STEM scholars participate in the interdisciplinary Nanotechnology for Renewable Energy course, seminars, demonstration projects, field trips, and outreach activities and are eligible to conduct research with more than 15 participating KU faculty members who are working on renewable energy projects, including EECS Professors Perry Alexander and Ron Hui.

Outreach activities are among Liggett’s favorite S-STEM activities because she can share her passion with younger students. She has participated in KU‘s Carnival of Chemistry, the Greater Kansas City Science and Engineering Fair, and KU’s Engineering Expo.  The annual Carnival and Expo events bring hundreds of students to KU to learn about science and health through fun interactive demonstrations and events. Last year, Liggett’s group demonstrated how wind energy works by simulating the amount of work done by a wind source (hair dryer) to turn a pinwheel. At the fall mentoring day at the KC fair, Liggett helped students develop hypotheses before they conducted their experiments.

Angela Wright's Journey

Wright put her dream of a college degree on hold to marry and start a family. The mother of three returned to college in the spring of 2010 to pursue her degree in computer science. The idea to specialize in robotics came from an unlikely adviser—her then four-year-old son. As she was telling him about what a computer scientist does, he loved the idea of her working with robots. So did she to be honest.

But in her first semester back, Wright suffered life-threatening injuries in a motorcycle accident. She was flown to KU Medical Center and spent 49 days on life support. She was released from the hospital on May 26 and returned to KU the following month to begin making up her coursework. Wright struggled her first few months back to even get around as she had to use a wheelchair and walker. Through sheer determination and courage, she completed her spring courses and was admitted later that summer into the EECS program.

The following spring the Department honored her with the Ellermeier Memorial Award, which recognizes the outstanding scholastic achievement of a nontraditional student. Wright says the award gave her the confidence to apply for the newly formed S-STEM scholarship. She was excited about the opportunities the program offered, including the nanotechnology course. From developing new ways to generate energy to reducing the weight and power consumption of electronics, the burgeoning field of nanotechnologies is transforming numerous fields.

By learning how researchers are manipulating matter to build super strong, light and durable products and interacting with experts in renewable energy from around the University, Wright is maximizing her educational experience.

“My work in the program has ingrained itself into my strategy for approaching all science from a fundamental standpoint of alternate solutions for energy use and consumption rather than create items dependent upon non-renewable power sources,” said Wright, a CS junior.

Like Liggett, Wright enjoys mentoring students and has participated in the Carnival, Expo, and KC Science Fair. Wright has given talks at her children’s school and is a strong advocate for web-based interactions between students and S-STEM scholars. She will help recruit students from Haskell Indian Nations University and Johnson County Community College for the S-STEM program. NSF dictates that transfer students be among S-STEM scholars, and as a transfer students, Wright can share her experiences with students.

Liggett and Wright are preparing an interactive demonstration that will use Lego robots to generate renewable energy for this year’s Carnival of Chemistry on Nov. 18.

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