JK watches as a child twists a knob on a contraption

Jonghwan Kwon teaches a curious kid how to illuminate a lightbulb using his mini model of a pumped storage hydropower plant—just one of his STEM education-related initiatives.

Photo by Argonne National Laboratory

In summer 2023, a group of high schoolers walked into Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, Illinois. For the next eight weeks, the students worked alongside experts in energy, including hydropower, to build the future of energy and solve climate change. By the end, one young student took her job very seriously.

"I sat down with her at a table, so I could explain a concept to her," said Quentin Ploussard, an energy systems engineer at Argonne and one of two hydropower mentors in the students' program. Quentin pulled up a chair and scribbled out a few mathematical equations on a piece of paper.

"Does this look clear to you?" he asked the student.

"Oh, I understand it," she replied. "But if you want, I can teach it to you."

Quentin laughed. Then, he let her teach him.

The program, called Bridge Into Internships, is designed to help high school students, especially those from underrepresented groups like women and Black and Hispanic students, understand that they, too, belong in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Many came from underserved communities where internship opportunities, especially in STEM, are scarce.

Ripple Effect

WPTO's Ripple Effect series features individuals whose impactful work will help advance hydropower and marine energy technologies to achieve a clean energy future.

And that's a problem—not just for the students but for the country's future.

In the United States, STEM jobs are expected to grow at a faster clip than all careers combined. Yet, today's students still more frequently opt for non-STEM careers. And with many hydropower workers nearing retirement, a so-called silver tsunami could leave this renewable energy giant without the robust, diverse workforce it needs to keep the country's power grid running smoothly.

"A lot of people going into STEM jobs end up in a big tech company," said Quentin. "Very few go into power systems and specifically hydropower. It's hard for students to see themselves in this field because they don't see people of a similar age."

Quentin and his colleague Jonghwan Kwon (who goes by "JK") are trying to fix that. They mentor high school students and present at conferences and STEM education events. And they recently built a 4-foot-tall model of a pumped storage hydropower plant to demonstrate how these facilities work. Both STEM efforts received support from the U.S. Department of Energy's Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO).

"Through these activities, we can show that hydropower can be fun and is more than just huge dams," said JK, who is a principal energy systems engineer at Argonne.

In celebration of National STEM Day, Quentin and JK shared why they chose to pursue STEM careers and how they're trying to fix hydropower's perception problem.

Quentin gestures toward a model of a pumped storage hydropower plant while a small crowd listens

Quentin (left, standing behind the table) and JK (right) both headed down STEM pathways early in their childhoods. Now, they hope their STEM activities might inspire a new generation to head into STEM careers.

Photos by Argonne National Laboratory 
JK watches a small child try to operate his pumped storage hydropower model

What motivated the two of you to pursue STEM careers?

JK: My grandfather was a professional carpenter. When I was about 8 years old, he taught me how to build tables and chairs. We even built a chicken coop. And my father, a civil engineer, showed me how to construct a building from design to finish. I grew up surrounded by engineering. And I got interested in electrical engineering when I was in elementary school. My friend and I built a small radio and doorbells. It was really fun.

Quentin: None of the people in my family are engineers. But my dad was always curious about everything. I remember sneaking into my parents' bedroom when I was about 8 years old. Next to my dad's side, there was a pile of science magazines, and I loved to just turn the pages. I didn't understand anything, but I really wanted to understand.

Later, I watched a documentary about global warming and how our civilization was built thanks to what one engineer called "fairy electricity," this magic entity that powers our lives. But a lot of electricity comes from fossil fuels, which are limited. And I was like, "Wow. That's scary." If we keep using fossil fuels, 100 years from now, we might lose this lifestyle and all these things we take for granted.

So, you both ended up at Argonne National Laboratory working in hydropower together. And then you decided to work in STEM education and diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA), too. Why?

Quentin: JK and I both got involved in DEIA and STEM activities when our colleague, Cathy Milostan, a market analysis and technology development specialist, got the idea to build a miniature pumped storage hydropower plant. JK and I are both modelers; we build mathematical equations that represent a hydropower plant or the grid. These power system models are critical to assess the benefit of power plant operations or make important investment decisions, but they are very technical and can be hard to explain to the layperson, let alone to kids. If you tell a kid that you work in renewable energy, they probably imagine you standing on top of a wind turbine. With a small-scale pumped storage hydropower plant, we could finally demonstrate a functional model with kids, so they can understand how hydropower works.

JK points to his pumped storage hydropower model as a young kid looks on

Most of the hydropower workforce is nearing retirement age, and yet few students are choosing careers in STEM, let alone hydropower. JK and Quentin hope their STEM education activities help shift that imbalance.

Photo by Argonne National Laboratory

JK: After we built the demo tool, I showcased it at Argonne's Science Careers in Search of Women event, which invites female high school students to explore STEM careers alongside the lab's women scientists and engineers. As of 2021, women still occupied only about a third of STEM jobs. So, Argonne and other national laboratories offer many programs that aim to recruit more girls and women into STEM and to help them feel welcome in these careers.

How did students react to your miniature plant?

JK: I explained that the plant uses a pump to move water from the lower reservoir into the upper reservoir. Then, we let them turn a valve to move the water down, which lights up an LED light. It's really rewarding to see their faces. They don't always know what electricity means, but they're excited because of the light.

Quentin: But some of them didn't care about the glowing light. They wanted to touch the tubing to feel the water going down. It's kind of funny, the diverse reactions you can get.

So, why are these STEM education projects important? Is hydropower facing any specific challenges?

JK: There is a perception issue. People see hydropower as boring or just a huge dam. But with these activities, we can help people see the value of hydropower and eventually get more people to join this industry.

Quentin: Hydropower is an old technology. When people think about renewables, nobody thinks about hydropower even though it provides nearly 30% of the United States' renewable energy.

The hydropower workforce is aging, too, right?

Quentin: Recently, JK and I were both at a hydropower conference, and we realized that there were no young people. We were there for a DEIA panel and thinking, "How can we get more young people interested in the industry?" Most of the people working in hydropower are older because we don't have a lot of new employees coming in. And that makes it hard for a teenager to see themselves in the industry. But the good thing with this pumped storage hydropower model is that it's a kind of advertisement—a way to show kids something they can understand.

Apart from building this model, you also recently hosted high school summer interns at your lab, right?

JK: We co-mentored high school interns here for eight weeks. We taught them how to control different energy resources to meet energy demand. As a simple example of what Quentin and I do all the time, we taught them how to use mathematical equations to schedule when the grid gets energy from which sources. Many of these solutions included pumped storage hydropower, a valuable resource for grid stability.

What was their reaction? Were they excited about the activity?

JK: I think they were really proud of what they accomplished. They got to present their work to an audience at Argonne that included their parents.

JK and two high schoolers stand next to his pumped storage hydropower model

The high school interns, a few of which are pictured here, couldn't get enough of JK's power system game. "What's next?" they kept asking. "What's next?" 

Photo by Argonne National Laboratory

Quentin: JK is not giving himself the credit he deserves. He created an engaging power system game, which challenged students to find the most cost-effective ways to coordinate various power plants to meet energy demand. They had to consider resource availability and the technical characteristics of pumped storage hydropower plants. We gave the students 24 hours to finish it, but they were so excited, they finished in just two hours. Every time they were saying, "What's next? What's next? What's next?"

What advice would you give to young students thinking about pursuing STEM careers?

Quentin: Students have so many amazing resources that we didn't have when we were their age. Today, students can access thousands of videos on specific topics or interviews with people who do the job they are interested in.

And you don't have to commit right away. I did my doctorate on the transmission grid. When I joined Argonne, I had almost no knowledge about hydropower, but I was able to quickly adapt to this industry because I already had skills in math and coding. If you have transferable skills, like calculus or coding in Python, you can help with hydropower, geothermal energy, or any other kind of energy. The spectrum of things you can work on is so broad. That's the great thing about STEM.

Visit WPTO's educational resources to find more educational resources. Catch up on WPTO's other Ripple Effect profiles and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy's Clean Energy Champions.

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