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Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education has always played an integral role in solving humanity’s biggest problems, allowing society to advance into the future.
Through engineering, we’ve successfully traveled to space and developed cutting-edge renewable energy technologies to combat climate change. More recently, biochemist Dr. Katalin Karikó modified mRNA to help trigger the body’s ability to fight disease. Her contributions to medical science laid the foundation for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which has slowed down infection during the pandemic.
Universities across the United States provide ample opportunities for STEM students to apply their learning and make early-career research contributions to their respective fields. With the intent of changing the world for the better, you’ll want to learn more about these four current STEM education research projects.
1. Converting and Storing Renewable Energy
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is globally recognized for its prestigious STEM programs — particularly engineering and the physical sciences — marking it as one of the leading academic research and technology innovation universities.
Under the direction of engineering professor Dr. Dick K.P. Yue, MIT researchers and engineering students are currently developing renewable wave energy conversion and storage technologies to eliminate the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIS), ocean waves off the United States coastlines could potentially create 2.64 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy — or 66% of the U.S. electricity generation in 2020.
The MIT study concentrates on harvesting wave power, which delivers a consistent energy source with greater energy mass. Emma Edwards, a graduate student in the engineering program, is making headway on an effective wave-energy converter design for extracting the most wave energy possible. If successful, the project could turn wave energy into a viable, cost-effective renewable energy source.
Edwards’s pursuit of an engineering degree is also notable, as a previous study showed that women accounted for less than 20% of the 100,000 undergraduate engineering majors in 2015.
2. Mapping Microplastics
Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year, with at least 14 million tons ending up in the ocean, from atop ocean currents down to deep-sea sediments.
Harsh ultraviolet rays and waves break down plastic pollution into tiny fragments, transporting them for thousands of miles. Microplastics are particularly hazardous to ocean and coastal ecosystems and aquatic species. They’re also tricky to keep track of and clean up.
At the University of Michigan (UM), research student Madeline Evans and Dr. Chris Ruf of UM’s Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering recently discovered a way to detect ocean microplastics using satellite imagery.
The NASA Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System’s (CYGNSS) microsatellites enabled Evans and Ruf to find large clusters of microplastic pollution — a similar technique used for tracking oil spills. Throughout the study, remote sensing delivered insight into plastic transport and accumulation.
Before the team’s investigation, microplastic tracking methods entailed research boats hauling meshed nets that could only chart one site at a time. The current research also uncovered other groundbreaking findings, such as the following:
- Microplastic concentrations tend to peak in North Atlantic and Pacific waters during the summer months.
- Clusters of microplastics in the Southern Hemisphere usually break up due to stronger currents, sending them below surface waters.
- The mouth of the Yangtze River also showed a spike in microplastic concentrations.
Understanding where microplastics collect can assist environmental cleanup organizations in deploying people and resources more efficiently.
3. Combatting Identity Theft With Behavior-Based Authentication
According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), there were 1,243,960 reported identity theft cases in the U.S. in 2021. Additionally, 1,001 data breaches exposed sensitive information about 155.8 million Americans in 2020 due to inadequate information security.
Clarkson University’s electrical and computer engineering researchers are trying to prevent future identity theft with state-of-the-art behavior-based authentification. Currently, authentication systems are knowledge-based, requiring passwords and fingerprinting for access — unfortunately, these systems are also vulnerable to breaches.
On the other hand, behavior-based systems analyze movement — keyboard, computer mouse, and mobile phone usage — to compile data specific to that user. This new system can recognize our identity and grant us access to our accounts and apps by monitoring our unique user patterns.
So far, the research team has created a database consisting of 12 million keystrokes, while ongoing methodologies will capture additional behavioral data from other devices. For this study, investigators tested their keyboard algorithm on themselves.
The initial results of their behavior-based authentication system look promising, with a 97% accurate detection rate in three minutes. However, their goal is to shorten this time for better user protection and experience.
4. Detecting COVID-19 Faster, Cheaper, and Easier
The COVID-19 pandemic changed a lot about higher education. While colleges saw enrollment drop by 2.5% and courses moved toward online learning, the next generation of STEM students grew more committed to tackling the rapid spread of disease.
From supply shortages of N95 respirators and other personal protective equipment to the fast development and worldwide distribution of an effective vaccine, the pandemic highlighted gaps and areas for improvement in the medical field.
At the University of Washington’s Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine, bioengineering and medical researchers have developed a new COVID-19 test that delivers results as quickly as drugstore antigen tests with the precision of lab-processed PCR tests.
Like PCRs, Harmony COVID-19 tests can pick up sensitive genetic materials with a nasal swab. However, whereas PCRs could take hours to determine infection, the Harmony kit only takes 20 minutes to show an accurate result.
Researchers made sure the test kit design and the detector would be inexpensive to manufacture and straightforward enough for the general public to use. People can use a smartphone to operate the detector — which can read four samples at a time — and receive their results in minutes.
When used by healthcare professionals for the first time in clinical trials, the Harmony kit returned 95% accuracy of RNA-extracted specimens in nasal swabs. Mass production of the Harmony COVID-19 test kit would make testing more efficient, exact, and affordable globally.
STEM Education Research Projects That Will Change the Future
STEM education has never been more critical for a world affected by climate change, infectious diseases, resource degradation, and technological concerns. As the world evolves and demands us to progress with it, scientists and students in STEM education research will enable us to stay ahead of the curve.