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ORNL scientists share excitement for engineering with students statewide

Verónica Melesse Vergara speaks with third and fourth graders at East Side Intermediate School in Brownsville. Credit: ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Twenty-seven ORNL researchers Zoomed into 11 middle schools across Tennessee during the annual Engineers Week in February. East Tennessee schools throughout Oak Ridge and Roane, Sevier, Blount and Loudon counties participated, with three West Tennessee schools joining in.

All sessions were conducted virtually, allowing ORNL to reach students farther away through the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network, or TSIN, which shared the event with West Tennessee teachers who are a part of TSIN’s Rural STEM Collaborative.

Erin Creel, a postdoctoral research associate in energy storage and conversion manufacturing, talked to seventh-grade students at Roane County’s Cherokee Middle School in Kingston. She said the students asked many great questions and wanted to know what she liked about being an engineer.

“I love that engineering allows me to use science to solve problems in the world and that my work makes the world a better place,” Creel said. “My work on energy storage that can support renewable energy solutions to climate change also means using all kinds of interesting tools, instruments and machines.”

Mirko Musa, a postdoctoral research associate in water resources science and engineering, also stressed to students that engineering is hands-on and exciting.

“Being a scientist is fun — I’m basically a kid who gets to play with sand and lasers,” he said, describing his graduate work at the University of Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Lab, a fluid mechanics research lab. The facility provides indoor and outdoor research channels that pull water directly from the Mississippi River as it flows through Minneapolis.

Musa co-presented with Carly Hansen, staff scientist in water resources science and engineering, to a group of eighth-graders in Katie McKee’s STEM classes at Roane County’s Midway Middle School.

Musa told the class that when he was around their age, he mostly played soccer and spent time with his friends in northern Italy. As he began to consider college, Musa became increasingly concerned about air pollution around his hometown, which inspired him to study environmental engineering.

He also talked about his research in hydrokinetic energy and studying small turbines that sit on the floor of a river that capture energy and the effects these devices have on natural systems within the river. At ORNL, Musa and Hansen work on the standard modular hydropower project to create low-cost systems using additive manufacturing to generate electricity from new or existing dams.

Musa and Hansen both reiterated that when they were beginning their careers, they had no idea where their interests might take them.

Hansen recalled how her love of art, as well as science and math, led her to pursue architecture. She interned for two summers in Hawaii documenting historic buildings. Yet, she decided to change course.

After taking an environmental engineering class, she took a summer job driving a boat for researchers collecting water samples from mountain lakes and reservoirs. She began to learn new ways to look at and study water, such as through satellite imagery and ground-penetrating radar.

“Don’t be afraid to try things,” Hansen said. “Internships and summer jobs are a great way to find out if you’ll really enjoy the work.”

Verónica Melesse Vergara, an engineer with ORNL’s National Center for Computational Sciences, spoke with West Tennessee students. She presented to Sharon Clark’s third and fourth graders at East Side Intermediate School in Brownsville. She described her work in high-performance computing and guided the class through the lab’s virtual tour of the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, including a close look at the nation’s fastest supercomputer, Summit.

She told students how working with other scientists to conduct their research on Summit expands her knowledge of a range of other scientific fields.

“I enjoy being an engineer because there is always something new to learn,” Melesse Vergara said.

Oscar Martinez, program manager for ORNL’s Package Testing Program, kept Paula Kerr’s seventh-grade Spanish class at Oak Ridge’s Jefferson Middle School engaged with inspirational quotes from the popular Netflix show Cobra Kai and a series of videos of his team’s work.

He said that when preparing to transport radioactive materials, his team must be ready for anything and work to ensure safety in packaging. Martinez then virtually led the class through the process of destructive testing, showing videos of test barrels being dropped, smashed, vibrated, punctured, burned in a blazing furnace and submerged in water.

Kerr said her class was fascinated. “I’ve received feedback from many of my students, and they loved his presentation and the videos of the drums being tested,” she said. “It was uplifting and motivating, for myself and the students that I teach.

“They need to hear that you can achieve your dreams if you put your mind to a task.”

Founded by the National Society of Professional Engineers, EWeek is dedicated to ensuring a diverse and well-educated engineering workforce by increasing interest in engineering and technology careers. EWeek is a coalition of more than 70 engineering, education and cultural societies, and more than 50 corporations and government agencies. EWeek reaches thousands of schools, businesses, and community groups across the United States.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit