High school students participating in this summer’s CATALYST Academy engineering program at Cornell found themselves engaged in a topic they may not have initially related to engineering: plants and the complex systems that help them grow, respond and thrive.
For 20 years, CATALYST Academy brought cohorts of high school students to Cornell’s campus to spark their interest in engineering and other STEM fields. This year, from July 16 to 22, CATALYST collaborated with the Programmable Plant Systems Research Center (CROPPS) to present a program focused on the science and technology of “programmable factories” to 54 students from across the country – the largest cohort ever.
Through classroom, laboratory, and field activities, students participated in active learning experiences in biotechnology, plant biology, chemical and materials engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and public communications. Students learned about CROPPS’ efforts to discover and invent new pathways to support agriculture and sustainability, and saw first-hand how engineering and technology play a major role in plant science and agriculture.
“The program presented by CROPPS brought together this extremely robust and amazing group of interdisciplinary experts who guided students through the steps of the process they use to ‘talk’ to plants,” said Chris Casler-Gonçalves, assistant director of Engineering Diversity Programs. “This is an emerging field and its social and ethical implications have not been fully explored. So it’s an exciting time to delve deeper into the topic. This encourages 16-year-olds to think in depth about a very complex subject.
CROPPS, a National Science Foundation science and technology center led by Cornell, attracts faculty and researchers from across campus – Cornell Engineering, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science – as well as researchers. from the Boyce Thompson Institute, the University of Arizona, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
“CROPPS has had a wonderful experience collaborating with engineering diversity programs on the CATALYST program in 2023 and the CURIE program in 2022. These programs welcome exceptionally curious, energetic and engaged students,” said Abe Stroock, director of CROPPS, co-leader of the CATALYST research experiment in 2023, and Gordon L. Dibble ’50 Professor in Cornell Engineering. “These students are enthusiastic learners and innovative thinkers. Their final projects and presentations gave us new ways to think about synthesizing engineering and plant science to advance pressing challenges in agriculture.
Leo Herrera ’24 attended CATALYST as a high school student and has now worked as a CATALYST program assistant three times.
“CATALYST is the reason I came to Cornell, the main reason,” Herrera said. “It was the first time I was around people of color interested in engineering, about 50 at a time, so it was a pretty cool experience.”
In previous years, the CATALYST program focused exclusively on engineering, while this year’s CROPPS program was much more multidisciplinary, Herrera said. At the beginning of the program, some students were hesitant about the biology component, he says.
“It took them a day to realize how closely engineering could be linked to plant science and biology, but once they had hands-on experience with materials and experiments, they realized that it “It was always the problem solving that we love, it’s always about hardware and software, it’s basically about biological engineering,” Herrera said.
During the first four days of the program, students learned biological and engineering concepts and applied them to experiments. They dissected plants, used software to engineer DNA that could create fluorescent cells, and used sensors to measure soil moisture, among other activities. On the fifth day, students learned the principles of science communication and developed presentations for a public audience. The range of student presentations – from how to filter the International Space Station’s water using plants to methods of making plants change color when they get sick – highlighted the diversity of engineering principles at work in agricultural systems.
“CATALYST is a seed,” said Si Jin Li, senior executive of CROPPS, co-leader of the CATALYST research experiment in 2023 and assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. “We provided students with a comprehensive picture of the interface between biology and engineering that would be rare to find in other similar programs. The interdisciplinary experience also demonstrated to students the vision and core values of Cornell University, such as collaborative and innovative culture and our continued exploration beyond technical boundaries.
Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for the Programmable Plant Systems Research Center.