Alumnus Dan Coombs named AIChE Philanthropist of the Year

Posted: December 15, 2021
Dan and Ellen Coombs
Dan and Ellen Coombs

Opening the mail is sometimes nothing more than receiving bills, but Dan Coombs ('78) and Ellen Coombs ('79) got a nice surprise recently -- a letter from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) congratulating them on being named the 2021 AIChE Philanthropists of the Year!

In January of 2021, Dan had joined the AIChE Foundation Board of Trustees, which is running its Doing a World of Good campaign aimed at bringing the best of chemical engineering to the world. The effort inspired Dan, and he and Ellen discussed with AIChE how they could participate in the campaign while partnering with Ohio State. With the world's ever-increasing need for chemical engineers, they found the perfect project: the Ohio State AIChE student chapter could pilot a newly-designed K-12 STEM Ambassador program in Columbus-area middle school classrooms.

"The purpose of the program is to spark interest about engineering and STEM in the future generations, intentionally supporting AIChE's commitment to diversifying the next cohorts of talent," Dan said. "The goal is to increase outreach to female and minority students and hopefully recruit talented young people whose diverse backgrounds can enrich and strengthen our discipline," he said.

The project serendipitously fell into the laps of AIChE students who view volunteering as an 
important part of their education. "As students of The Ohio State University, we are dedicated to the university's 'Education for Citizenship' motto," said Matt Greenwaldt, AIChE President.

The project initially fell to Elizabeth Ostadali, AIChE's internal vice president, who met with the AIChE national board to get an overview of the program. Elizabeth immediately saw the project's potential and felt fortunate. "It really shows how much opportunity there is at Ohio State," she said. "This project could have gone to any school in the United States, but it came to us. It's amazing to have all these resources and work with the kids and make an impact," she said.

Zachary Gemmer, a former youth counselor with a passion for mentoring youth, was a natural fit to co-lead the program. "I thought it was exciting that I could share some of the things I touch and learn every day with a bunch of kids who are brand new or know very little about the field," Zachary said.

After meeting again with AIChE National; Larry Sernyk from Dow Chemical, which donated the materials; and local schools, Elizabeth and Zachary realized that they first had to expand their team. AIChE Executive board members Lilly Vagedes and Tori Ostrow were excited to join, and six other students were selected from a pool of 27 excellent applicants.

It wasn't easy to get the ball rolling, however. "The students got good support from AIChE and Dow, but had some real hills to climb to get this started," Dan Coombs said. "I am proud of them in so many ways."'

After reaching out to several schools, Larry Larson Middle School was identified as a good fit in terms of curriculum and resources. Elizabeth and Zachary pulled the project together in just two weeks. Each Friday classroom session was planned a week ahead, with a group training held on Sundays.

As a means of maximizing impact in the classroom, Elizabeth and Zachary applied a collaborative and integrative approach to the classroom workshops. "We wanted to keep the students collaborating together in an environment of creativity," Zachary explained. "To do that, we had to build a relationship first. We went in and first got to know the students so they would know and recognize us. After that, they were engaged," he said.

AIChE K-12 fourth grade strawberry DNA experiment
OSU Ambassador Sparsh Balabadrapatruni works with fourth graders extracting the DNA of strawberries.

"The response was better than anticipated," Elizabeth said. "The hands-on stuff really drew them in."

Some of the Ambassador-hosted workshops involved learning about practical methodology; absorption, solubility, precipitate, filtration, and extraction; monomers and polymer chains; and analyzing fatty oils.

In one experiment, students extracted strawberry DNA. Frozen strawberries were mashed and mixed with soapy water and salt to break down the cell membranes; filtered; and then mixed with alcohol to force the DNA to separate. The DNA was then extracted with pipettes and placed into capped Eppendorf tubes, which students took home.

Students also enjoyed chromatography, the separation of a mixture by passing it in solution or suspension or as a vapor (as in gas chromatography) through a medium in which the components move at different rates. In the lab, CBE students have done experiments in which they had a mixture of components with different polarities that were put on TLC paper. The mixture was put in either a polar or non-polar solvent. If the solvent was polar, it would bring the solute up the solvent front. If it was not polar, it would not go as far up the TLC plate.

In order to introduce the middle schoolers to this concept, OSU Ambassadors used colored markers. Using dyes, students could see the colors separate into their primary colors. The kids were engaged and excited to see their chromatography paper filled with vibrant colors right before their eyes. Since the composition of colors is similar to the composition of chemicals, this is a useful introduction to understanding how chemicals combine to create mixtures.

Next semester, Tori Ostrow and Lilly Vagedes will be the team leaders. They hope to expand the number of experiments and make a few improvements based on feedback from the students and teachers.
"This program is important because I came from a small town that never had such a program," said Lilly. "My interest in science would have been sparked a lot sooner with a program like this, so seeing these kids get really interested because of an experiment makes me feel better."

Tori agreed. "Doing this feels really important. If I can help more people get involved in STEM; if I can inspire some little girl to be involved in STEM: I think that is really amazing."

In all, 63 children benefitted from the program, and Zachary and Elizabeth created a complete handoff package that will be accessible nationally for more schools to follow their lead. As a first step in bringing attention to the project, Zachary, Elizabeth, Lilly and Tori gave a presentation about their experience at the recent AIChE Annual Student Conference in Boston.

"The pilot laid out an excellent framework to continue in Columbus and start with other student chapters across the country," Dan Coombs said.

AIChE OSU K-12 STEM Ambassadors spell out AIChE and Ohio
Members of the Ohio State AIChE newly-created K-12 STEM Ambassador program spell out 'AIChE' and 'Ohio' during their first visit to a local school. Bottom row (kneeling, left to right): Tori Ostrow, Alexis Davis, Lilly Vagedes, Elizabeth Ostadali. Top row (standing, left to right): Zachary Gemmer, Rawad Almhana, Sparsh Balabadrapatruni, Katie Bennett, Eva Boeckl, Bilal Saleh
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