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USM professor talks algae education at U.S. Dept. of Energy conference

In just six years, more than 100,000 students in over 700 public schools and 25 colleges — in 66 countries — have learned about the science and wonders of algae as fuel, food, health supplement, environmental cleaner.

And, USM Professor Ira “Ike” Levine recently told a crowd gathered for a U.S. Department of Energy virtual Bioeconomy Conference, that all translates into bioeconomy jobs.

A photo of USM Natural Sciences professor Ike Levine

Ira "Ike" Levine, algae expert and USM professor of natural and applied sciences. (Photo courtesy of the Sun Journal.)

“We’re terribly pleased being algae-lifers and being science geeks that we’re now considered cool because algae’s cool,” said Levine, professor of Natural and Applied Sciences and one of the founders of the Algae Foundation and Algae Technology Educational Consortium. “So how do we build on being cool?”

Levine’s hour-long talk centered on the Consortium’s work to provide free algae education across the country and around the world, improving knowledge of the aquatic plants that are highly useful but so often ignored.

 “When people ask 'why algae, I prefer to say why not algae,” Levine told the group of Department of Energy staffers, scientists, and members of the algae community. “When we start off a lecture for young people we say take a deep breath and thank the algae.”

The Consortium provides free teacher training, books, samples, experiments, lectures, and curriculum to classes interested in learning about algae, as well as free online courses. Levine himself has spearheaded a Summer Algae Science Institute at Lewiston-Auburn College and will run the first Algae Camp on the Portland Campus this summer, both with direct support from USM.

The success of the educational push has been clear: More than 100,000 people around the world now know more about this vital natural resource. Of those who took the massive open online course No. 1, 43 percent said they received a tangible benefit from the class and 10 percent got a pay raise or promotion.

And within a booming algae industry, many can have their pick of jobs. Every student who participated in the Consortium’s certificate program at Santa Fe Community College found a job — a 100 percent success rate.

The Consortium isn’t stopping there. The USDA has granted the group $150,000 to help expand the USM sponsored Summer Algae Science Institute nationwide.

And to keep algae cool, the Consortium, in partnership with USM and Brigham Young University, are creating algae education games, using Minecraft, virtual reality and simulations to teach and intrigue kids.

“It turns out there are 400 million users (of Minecraft),” Levine said. “We hope to tap into this wealth of participants.”

And why not think even bigger? After all, Algae is already nature’s superhero.

“We can make algae maybe the next Marvel movie,” Levine said.