As world energy consumption grows, the business of bioenergy is expected to boom, and along with it a workforce of trained experts prepared to bring it to market. Yet to date, only a handful of universities and colleges offer bioenergy programs or degrees—and the scope of the curriculum varies widely among institutions.
AAAS member Kimi Grzyb, a doctoral candidate at Oregon State University (OSU), is working to change that.
As part of a team from the OSU BioResource Research Program, she has embarked on an ambitious, systematic process of distilling the many topics covered under the term "bioenergy" into a framework of defined, yet broad, components deemed essential for a college-level bioenergy curriculum.
Viewed as an vital part of our renewable energy future, bioenergy encompasses any renewable energy source that's been derived from biological material—it's a motley crew, including everything from firewood to biodiesel, from soybeans to fuel cells powered by microbes.
"The field of bioenergy is so vast, interdisciplinary, and diverse," says Grzyb. "The hope is that [our] framework can be used as a guideline for others looking to start similar programs, and the curriculum can be tailored to region-specific bioenergy technologies."
Developing curriculum for a new discipline that includes fast-evolving technologies is a bit like driving without a road map, says the 37-year-old biologist-turned environmental sciences graduate student.
"There were no peer reviewed journals that said, 'Hey! This is what you should be including in your bioenergy curriculum,'" observes Grzyb. "You need a starting point, something to organize it all."
Grzyb is starting with the Delphi method, a widely used technique for establishing accepted opinion about real-world knowledge by soliciting input from experts within described topic areas. It has been used for decades in policy, engineering, and science, and Grzyb is currently using the method to figure out what a comprehensive bioenergy curriculum should look like.
She's convened a panel of bioenergy scientists, teachers and entrepreneurs who are responding to a series of questions about bioenergy. Grzyb is mediating the process in a series of rounds, slowly tweaking each set of questions to reflect the previous answers. In the process, the experts weigh in until a consensus is reached.
Grzyb's project is now about two-thirds complete, and the results are already encouraging. From her panel's multiple responses, Grzyb has been able to distill a list of 13 elements—from energy basics to policy and business skills—that her experts agree should be at the core of comprehensive bioenergy curriculum.
Grzyb is a friendly, detail-oriented, big picture thinker who isn't afraid to roll up her sleeves and dig into a challenge. It's also a good description of the at-times-meandering career path that led her to bioenergy.
In the early 2000s, Grzyb, a Connecticut native and camping enthusiast, spent 27 months in a Dominican Republic rainforest as a Peace Corps volunteer. She built latrines and aqueducts, grew vegetables, bathed in the river, drank rainwater and cooked beans with firewood she chopped.
"It was completely different than the way we think about bioenergy," explains Grzyb. "It was bioenergy at its most simplistic—almost from cavemen days—but here I was in 2001."
Bioenergy was already on Grzyb's radar. But, she says, she hadn't thought about how broad the field actually was. Her next encounter with bioenergy would be considerably more high tech. Following her jungle sojourn, Grzyb earned a master's degree in molecular biology. Her coursework included an internship that divided her time between the lab and scavenging among the wreckage of a Superfund site.
The site was southern Oregon's abandoned Formosa Mine, a capped-off acid mine infamous for polluting local streams and effectively "acidifying" area waters. But in this tragedy there also was opportunity. The runoff's low pH created the perfect environment for acidophiles (acid-loving bacteria), microorganisms sought after as components in fuel cells because of their ability to produce and transmit electricity. Grzyb collected them and cultured them in the lab. Fascinating work, she observes, but not the right fit for her.
Grzyb discovered her passion in teaching and education. Connected to her current project, she has helped to design two courses at OSU, one introducing undergraduate students to local bioenergy projects and businesses and the other focusing on methods of bioenergy research. The courses were designed for OSU's bioenergy minor, and Grzyb served as a Teaching Assistant.
Major components of both courses have since been confirmed by the Delphi method, suggesting Grzyb is on the right track, one that will ultimately lead to her fine-tuning these and other courses as her research progresses.
Grzyb says her current work is a unique amalgam of all these experiences. She hopes her efforts will help students grasp how broad the field of bioenergy is, then take that potential and actualize it in a new bioenergy economy.
"In four or five years when the industry is hopefully taking off, I want them to hit the ground running."