Small investment yields valuable knowledge about energy

BRADFORD, Pa. — Dr. David Soriano’s Introduction to Fuels lab class is one part “American Pickers,” one part “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and one part Pinterest projects.

Matthew Nolder, a history-political science major from Emporium, left, and Shayne Kraynyk, a student from Sewickley, test the voltage of a rechargeable battery that they recharged using an inexpensive solar-powered garden light in Dr. David Soriano’s Introduction to Fuels lab at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford.

A year ago, the associate professor of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford wanted to develop a new class for non-majors to take to fulfill their general education requirement for a science lab.

His popular Drugs and Society lab was always full, and he wanted to give students another option for a real-world based chemistry course. When University of Pittsburgh provost Dr. Patricia Beeson offered faculty members grants for sustainability initiatives, Soriano applied and received a grant to fund the new class.

The list of items needed for the new lab read like an inventory for Worth W. Smith, the region’s venerable hardware company – bleach, OxyClean, stainless steel bolts, solar garden lights.

Soriano took his $1,000 grant, ransacked Pitt-Bradford’s labs for old nickel battery casings and other items sitting unused in drawers, combined it with his stash of cheap flashlights and empty pop bottles and created labs for the entire first semester, which was spring 2015.

Students produced hydrogen and oxygen gases with a basic fuel cell set up, then used the gases to produce electric current. They distilled alcohol and made a battery.

Following the spring class – and still operating on the original $1,000 worth of supplies — he retooled a couple of the lessons for the fall semester. This time he led a half-dozen students through hands-on experiments to create bottle rockets for testing various fuels; tested how varying amounts of bioethanol affected a small four-stroke engine; and built a solar battery recharger from inexpensive garden lights.

Travis Bert, a business management major from McKean, explained how he and his classmates removed the tiny solar panel from the garden light and ran copper wire from the panel to a drained rechargeable battery, then left them in the university’s rooftop greenhouse for two weeks to charge.

As students walked up the stairs to retrieve their set-ups from the greenhouse, Soriano said, “It’s OK if it doesn’t work. It’s important to see why it didn’t work.”

In this case, none of the set-ups worked as hoped. “The bare wires touch very easily,” Soriano said. “So how could you improve it so that didn’t happen?” (Use insulated wire).

“He’s a pretty cool professor,” said Bert, who also takes the lecture portion of Drugs and Society from Soriano.

Students said that when Soriano found out many of them were business majors, he made sure to explain business and industrial applications as he went along. It wasn’t hard for students to see where a basic understanding of energy and fuels may help them one day in a discussion about creating a more efficient manufacturing process or saving money in an industry.

For spring 2016, the American Refining Group/Harry Halloran Jr. Energy Institute at Pitt-Bradford will spend $277 to purchase an inexpensive voltage probe, circuit board and equipment that will allow students to monitor the voltage of their battery projects from anywhere via the Internet.

Anabelle Pecora from Great Neck, N.Y., who is leaning toward becoming a business major, enjoys making things during the labs. “It’s pretty cool just to make something we can use,” she said, such as a battery. She enjoyed how different the class was from her other courses where lecture is more prevalent than experiment. “This is a break away from your major.”

It’s a break for Soriano, too, who clearly enjoyed working with the non-majors.

“I want them to look forward to coming to class every week,” he said, adding that the class is more relaxed for him because he must be tougher on his chemistry majors and those who want to go on to be scientists, pharmacists or doctors.

He can simply enjoy being with and teaching these non-majors. They can simply enjoy learning about science. Future businesses will enjoy having employees who are more scientifically literate. That’s probably worth a lot more than $1,000.

Posted by on Dec 9 2015. Filed under Local News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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