Diversifying Future Innovators in Socially Engaged Biogas Research
From left: Elyssa Serrilli (Northeast Biogas Initiative), Enrique 'Henry' Suárez (Education), Erica Light (iCons) and Martin Hunter (Biomedical Engineering).
The impacts of climate change are felt more and more each year. Still, rapid expansion of renewable energy to combat climate change and increase energy resilience disproportionately excludes low-income communities of color–the same communities most severely impacted by dependence on fossil fuels. To ensure a just energy transition, access to renewable energy must expand to those typically priced out by prohibitively high costs. Small-scale biogas systems are emerging in the US as a low-cost and low-tech solution to expanding access to renewable energy technology and the associated financial and environmental benefits.
Sustaining such efforts toward climate justice requires that PK-16 students who will become the future generation of experts in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) be trained both as interdisciplinary research innovators and socially conscious advocates. Biogas presents an exciting avenue for putting students in the driver’s seat of community-engaged research at the intersections of agriculture, energy, engineering, human health, microbiology, waste processing, and social justice. With this in mind, a team from UMass Amherst and Northeast Biogas Initiative is piloting an undergraduate student-driven biogas research endeavor to advance three parallel aims: 1) implement and optimize new biogas digesters in service of local community organizations involved in agriculture and food production, 2) mentor diverse cohorts of undergraduates through the stages of inquiry and research, and 3) assess the impact of student-driven inquiry experiences on students’ research skills and personal identification with research.