FENTON • In a chemistry lab at Rockwood Summit High School, leftover vegetable oil from the cafeteria is a sort of liquid gold.
Lined up on lab tables in glass funnels and a few 2-liter plastic soda bottles, the waste vegetable oil is being converted into biodiesel, a process that so enthralled students they formed an after-school club. They’ve designed methods to test its quality, compared how it works on different vehicles and even built a computer-automated processor.
“I really do find it fun,” said Lydia Fletcher, a junior, who wants to go into science and engineering one day. “And it’s giving us an advantage. We have been in the lab, figuring these things out, just like we would be in the real world.”
Four years ago, a student request for a lab experiment has evolved into a program that could make Rockwood Summit a destination for students and teachers throughout the region who want to learn about biofuels.
The program recently got a $100,000 boost with a Community Initiative grant from Monsanto, the Creve Coeur-based biotechnology giant. The money will help build a center for hands-on, project-based learning about sustainable sources of fuel.
Those lessons about renewable energy are not only timely, but hit across subjects such as science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM — areas in which teachers here and across the country are eager to foster student interest.
One study found that only 16 percent of high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in a career in those areas, feeding worries that the country is falling behind others and losing a competitive edge.
President Barack Obama has challenged colleges and universities to graduate an additional million students with STEM majors. The effort seeks to draw in those who are under-represented in the field, such as women, Hispanics and African-Americans.
Rockwood Summit students involved in the biodiesel project the past few years have been using their projects and experiments to teach younger students about biofuels, which they test in a 1990s Dodge Ram truck parked at the school. But their 250-gallon processor currently sits in a small corner of a storage shed on campus.
The new building, called the Monsanto Education Center for Sustainable Solutions, will be on campus and allow for more room to work and teach other students. Plans call for growing corn and soybeans on site.
Teachers Tracie Summerville and Darrin Peters say the program is not only engaging students in science, technology and engineering, but also causing them to think about solutions to a real-world problem.
“It really stretches their mind to help them think outside the box,” Summerville said.
That impressed Deborah Patterson, president of the Monsanto Fund, who said the teachers were making math and science relevant and also working on an important topic. She presented the $100,000 check last month to the school.
“They get what kids need,” she said.
Past graduates who were involved in the biodiesel project have been offered college scholarships and internships based on that experience, the teachers said.
“I think one of the really awesome things about the grant and STEM is that if a kid wants to solve a problem, then that just lights a fire in them,” Peters said. “They’re going to become better critical thinkers, better prepared for college.”
The National Corn Growers Association, based in St. Louis, also contributed $5,000, saying it sees the potential for other teachers to emulate what is happening in the labs at Rockwood Summit.
“You hear of minds-on, hands-on learning. This is the best example,” said Pam Keck, director of biofuels for the association. “The student enthusiasm just took it to the next level.”
Jacob Humphrey, a junior, said figuring out a better way to make biofuel was important.
“I believe this is one of the things we are going to have to do in the future,” he said. “This is going to be something we are always going to be able to use.
And it’s going to be really nice to have our own building.”