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A TechCHAT With Executive Director of MudWatt - Keegan Cooke

Scientist Keegan Cooke, executive director of MudWatt, spoke to Education World about this innovative science kit that allows students to grow and track their own bacteria colony in order to produce electricity. Read on below for details on this new classroom tool that’s creating a buzz. 



Beyond a simple science experiment, what are some of MudWatt’s longterm applications in the science classroom? 


The MudWatt really is a tool for interdisciplinary, inquiry-based STEM education. Kids see first-hand how seemingly distinct disciplines (biology, chemistry, electricity, engineering, etc) all relate to each other inside real-world biotechnology. The MudWatt can serve as a demonstration to tie different lessons together throughout a school year. Moreover, kids learn the scientific method - how to come up with their own questions, and then answer those questions by designing their own experiments.



Describe a few of the things that students can learn using MudWatt and how MudWatt is used as the main learning tool within these contexts. 


We've developed some excellent free curriculum modules (tied to NGSS) that cover topics in microbiology, soil chemistry and ecology, physics, electrical engineering and more. The MudWatt then serves as the focal point of these broader lessons by being a real, tangible demonstration of the more abstract concepts covered, which really crystallizes the student's learning experience.  Teachers are able to pick which lessons work best for their classes.  



How did the technology behind MudWatt originate? How did you conceive the idea of applying this technology to a classroom setting? Why did you think it was useful to science students? 


This all came about when I was a research scientist studying microbial fuel cell technology at a small start-up in Boston. At that company we were developing these devices that would go down to the bottom of the ocean and power sensor packages for Naval or scientific applications. During that job, I would go around to these educational events showing kids buckets of mud with little blinking LED lights, and kids would flip out and get confused and perplexed, but also really curious and engaged. So I thought this technology would be a great tool for getting kids engaged in science and technology. The technology also combined so many different sciences into one kit, which is really unique. I called up my best friend from elementary school, Kevin Rand, who happen to be a gifted engineer and product designer, and the rest is history.



Briefly describe the Hacker Board and some of its applications. How much can one actually do with the power generated by a MudWatt? How sophisticated is the hacking process? 


The Hacker Board takes the power coming from the MudWatt and turns it into short bursts of higher power, with higher voltage. This is enough to power small electronics, such as an LED, a clock, a thermometer, and a buzzer. Kids are able to "Hack" their MudWatts by plugging in different components and seeing what they are able to power. We've designed the kit so that it is very easy to hack the MudWatt in this way.



The MudWatt Explorer App really seems to pull together the learning experience. Can you discuss both educator and student experiences with the app and how it plays into how classrooms interact with MudWatt?


The App definitely adds to both the fun and the educational value of the MudWatt. With the App, you can actually take power readings on your MudWatt and track your microbes' growth over time. Moreover, you can unlock chapters of an educational comic that follows the trials and tribulations of an electric bacteria in this muddy world. The App is also great for classrooms because, thanks to the crowdfunding campaign, you will now be able to track the data of multiple MudWatts simultaneously and export that data to a spreadsheet for easy analysis.



You recently surpassed your crowdfunding goal of $30,000 on Kickstarter by over $5,000. Can you tell us a bit about some of the new projects and features that will come out this campaign? 


We're super excited about additional features we're able to add to the MudWatt because of the crowdfunding campaign, and we are super grateful to all our supporters.  We've been developing some really unique and interesting curriculum modules for teachers (tied to NGSS) that are packed with fun and educational activities.  Moreover, we're switching our packaging to a compostable paper material that kids actually shred up and turn into electricity. 



Discuss the process of MudWatt users making their own fuels. What types of organic materials work best? 


Kids are encouraged to think “What would microbes like to eat?”. They can find something in their fridge or their compost and mix it in with their soil to make their fuel. This spurs lots of interesting questions in kids' minds (e.g. What are food preservatives and do they impact the MudWatt?) and makes them think about what they themselves eat. We've found that plant-based carbon sources, like shredded paper or cardboard, work best to give microbes an extra boost. We also have content around waste-to-energy in our new pamphlets and curriculum. 



Is there a limit to how many MudWatts can be connected? What’s the largest system reported and what does/did it power? 


There is no limit to how many MudWatts can be connected. We look forward to hearing what people experiment with. We've heard of MudWatt systems being used to power some sensor and communications modules - enabling your MudWatt to send you a text message with some data or a simple "hello".



What types of projects, resources or community-driven objectives can we expect to see from MudWatt in the future? 


The feedback we've gotten from teachers and parents who have tried the MudWatt has been fantastic, and we are very much encouraged to come out with some more kits in the future along the themes of renewable energy, sustainability, and waste-to-energy.  So stay tuned!



Can MudWatt’s technology be used to power larger objects, such as a car battery, home or even office building? 


The MudWatt's power is limited, so you won't be seeing any MudWatt-powered cars anytime soon.  But the technology can be used on a larger scale, particularly in wastewater treatment plants.  Instead of wastewater treatment plants consuming a bunch of energy (they currently consume about 3 percent of the U.S. energy budget), they could become energy producers, putting power back into the grid and becoming part of a broader portfolio of renewable energy technologies.



For more on MudWatt visit here



Thoughts on this TechCHAT? Share them in the comments section below.



Article by Jason Papallo, Education World Social Media Editor

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