It may seem odd to keep a bright yellow “foam gnome” on display at your work station. But that’s exactly what ORISE Workforce Development Section Manager Rebecca Cavender (in photo) did after creating the polyurethane structure in a K-12 STEM education experiment as part of the ORISE Academy. A year-long leadership program, the ORISE Academy immerses ORAU employees in the intricacies of managing the ORISE contract and ultimately seeks to create knowledgeable ambassadors for ORISE.
The foam gnome’s oddly shaped mass (see photo) is the result of two liquid components combining in a chemical reaction to create a rigid polyurethane foam that expands to about 30 times its original size. In this demonstration, academy members experience one of the many hands-on activities that hundreds of K-12 students and teachers experience through ORISE’s free STEM education programs. In this case, the foam gnome illustrates how chemistry is applied to the creation of commercial insulation. As one might imagine, Cavender said that the foam gnome is quite the conversation starter for those visiting her office.
“I’ve used the foam gnome as a tool in my office to explain the science behind its creation and how our K-12 team uses these kinds of experiments to get students and teachers excited about STEM education,” said Cavender.
Each year, 15 ORAU employees like Cavender are selected from all levels of the organization to join the ORISE Academy. Participants must commit a full calendar year with nine, three-hour sessions from January through September, two months to work on class projects from October to November, and a graduation ceremony in December. Subject matter experts, including past and current academy members, are recruited for presenting the material during the informational sessions, which sometimes also include hands-on activities and in-person tours of the ORISE laboratories. The final class projects vary each year and are a way for academy participants to demonstrate what they’ve learned by producing something of value to ORISE.
“The academy’s main purpose is to build internal awareness for ORISE, which is why all members are encouraged to go back to their work areas and share what they’ve learned with their coworkers,” said Senior Vice President and ORISE Director Jim Vosburg, Ed.D. “It’s through this transfer of knowledge that we’re working to develop future leaders with a strong, foundational understanding of the ORISE contract and its five performance work statement areas.”
Curriculum for the ORISE Academy features all ORISE capabilities plus other topics, such as ORISE’s history, contractor assurance, funding and strategic partnership projects. As an offshoot to the academy, several lunch-and-learn sessions are offered to all employees based on the topics academy participants believe are most impactful. The academy’s curriculum is also being converted into on-demand training modules for employees interested in completing refresher training and for new employees.
“If you think about all the academy participants, their commitment to share what they’ve learned, and the many other ways we are repurposing the academy’s curriculum, you start to see a multiplier effect,” said Vosburg. “And employees who better understand ORISE’s integrated capabilities are better equipped to meet customer needs using the full scope of the ORISE contract.”
Cavender said she not only shares her experiences informally with others but she has also worked the knowledge into her processes for onboarding new employees.
“Now whenever I have to conduct new employee training, I find that I can speak more confidently about the ORISE capabilities outside of my department,” said Cavender. “And of course, when I get to the K-12 portion, I always refer to the foam gnome as an illustration for our K-12 outreach activities.”
The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) asset that is dedicated to enabling critical scientific, research, and health initiatives of the department and its laboratory system by providing world class expertise in STEM workforce development, scientific and technical reviews, and the evaluation of radiation exposure and environmental contamination.
ORISE is managed by ORAU, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, for DOE’s Office of Science. The single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.osti.gov.