As part of an ongoing collaboration between the Kamcev Lab at the University of Michigan and the student-led organization Women+ Excelling More in Math, Engineering, and Science (FEMMES), a recent activity gave fourth through sixth grade students from Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Detroit a chance to explore opportunities in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) and learn about how scientists and engineers are using membrane technologies to address the global water crisis.
Led by graduate students in the Kamcev Lab, the outreach event included a hands-on activity where students made their own filter using sand, charcoal and gravel to create clean drinking water, along with a presentation on the global water crisis and the importance of water conservation and management.
“If the 1000 mL of water in this beaker represents all the water we have on the earth’s surface, only this amount [inside a pipette tip] is easily accessible to us,” current Chemical Engineering PhD student, José Carlos Díaz explained to the students.
To make the presentation more interactive, a cartoon water droplet named “Walter” also presented interesting facts to the students.
The hands-on activity involved the use of a simple water filtration system to demonstrate how membrane technology works in the treatment of wastewater. Students could build their own filtration system using simple materials such as sand, gravel and activated carbon, and then use it to filter dirty water to create clean drinking water.
“The filtration experiment was really cool because we got to make our own filter and see how it cleaned the dirty water,” said one student who participated in the outreach activity. “I also learned that we need to save more water because we don’t have that much of it on the earth.”
As population grows, the need for freshwater for domestic, agricultural and energy generation use has increased exponentially. As a result, many regions around the world are using more freshwater than what is available from natural resources.
It is estimated that only 3% of all the water on earth is freshwater, and only 1% of that freshwater is easily accessible to humans from rivers, ponds, lakes and springs.
The remaining freshwater is difficult to access, causing an increasing need to engineer materials and technologies that allow us to treat other sources of water, like seawater, to make freshwater.
In addition to the hands-on activity where students built their own water filtration system, the group learned about the process of flocculation, which involves adding chemicals called flocculants to dirty water to help the impurities clump together and settle at the bottom of a container, allowing for the clear water to be separated and treated further. Some students took home samples of P&G Purifier of Water packets, which includes flocculants, to try the demonstration at home with parents and other family members.
“We need to be more aware of how much water we use and find ways to conserve it,” said Jovan Kamcev. “It’s important for young people to learn about this issue and become advocates for change.”
The Kamcev Lab and FEMMES hope this community event will inspire the next generation about the importance of water treatment and conservation, while educating them on the role that science and technology can play in addressing global problems.
“Engaging with students at a young age can encourage their interest in STEM fields and help them understand the potential impact of their future careers,” Díaz said.
The Kamcev Lab focuses on developing new and improved membrane materials that can treat water from a variety of sources, including seawater. They are the first lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering to partner with FEMMES in recent years, which is an exciting step towards more collaborations and community engagement.
“We hope that this partnership will continue to inspire and motivate other labs to pursue similar outreach opportunities,” Díaz said.