Fueling the Future, One Student at a Time

Dan Goodman, executive director of Biodiesel University. (Photo courtesy of Biodiesel University)

If the geeks shall inherit the earth, Dan Goodman is someone you'll want on your team. Not just because of his extensive credentials reflecting his science, technology and business acumen, but because he is on a quest to make the world a better place.

Goodman, who at the age of 10 founded a pinball repair firm, is a serial entrepreneur. He notes with something between a laugh and a sigh that today, after 30 years of experience as a self-starter, he carries nine sets of business cards reflecting his current projects.

Some of his recent endeavors include advising a video-game trading company, a venture capital fund and a local brewery. He also sits on the boards of an engineering firm specializing in energy efficiency projects and an educational toy company.

Kids and science take up a lot of his thoughts these days. Goodman spends most of his time fueling a project he founded in early 2006: Biodiesel University. It is a non-profit, renewable energy education organization designed to educate students, teachers and consumers about renewable energy and environmental stewardship.

His small business is getting its message out and growing by working with college students to help create the project, which is geared toward middle and high school students.

Many large corporations enlist student interns for help - it's a symbiotic relationship - the interns gain experience in the "real world," while the firm benefits from usually excellent work that is often free or low-cost. Although small businesses usually lack the infrastructure for an intern coordinator, if a program gets going it can save a firm significantly in cost and time.

Goodman's project has taken the business/intern experience a step further by collaborating with colleges and universities like Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W. Va., the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and the University of Maryland in College Park, Md., to provide specific Biodiesel University curriculum for degree candidates.

"It's really a two-level educational model where you have college level students sort of experiencing what it's like in the workforce between many different disciplines. The result of their work is the educational content for younger students," said Goodman. "We have many engineering students as well as mechanical, electrical, aerospace, geography, graphic design and business students."

The project has about six people, mostly part-time, who work on core administrative functions. But at any one time there are as many as 55 students helping out.

In the several times that we've spoken, Goodman, the father of two elementary-school children, talks passionately about the nation's need for alternative fuels and better education on the subject.

"We are using biodiesel as an example of the renewable technology to get middle and high school kids inspired about technology," he said, speaking from his College Park, Maryland offices.

"Although our title is Biodiesel University, the lessons in general should be about environmental stewardship and getting kids excited about the environment and technology. It's unusual that a school would be able to afford or get to have a lot of industrial-grade cutting edge stuff at the school."

Seventy-two percent of American teenagers believe technological inventions or innovations can solve some of the nation's most pressing environmental issues within the next decade, but more than half feel that their high schools are not preparing them for careers in technology and engineering, according to the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index released last week.

Goodman, who holds an electrical engineering degree, hopes that some of these youngsters might embark on careers in biotechnologies by focusing on genetic engineering, for example, or maybe they will be nanotechnologists investigating the manipulation of matter at a molecular level. He notes that there will be a greater need for farmers who will have detailed knowledge about the relationship between fuel and feed stocks.

A National Mission

Biodiesel is made by processing vegetable oils and other fats and is used in pure form or as an additive to petroleum-based diesel fuel. Biodiesel is "much more environmentally friendly, it's domestically produced and geopolitically it makes sense because you're not spending our dollars to foreign regimes that may or may not be friendly to [the United States]," said Goodman.

The topic is touted on the nation's highest levels. President Bush in his 2007 State of the Union address set a national goal of producing 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels by 2017, saying the country needs to become independent from foreign oil. The issue has its naysayers, who criticize the economics related to using corn-derived ethanol as a transportation fuel.

The issue of alternative fuels is more prevalently permeating the media as the cost of gas increases for consumers and more people than ever are aware of the potential impact of global warming. Goodman jokes that around his offices, people are saying "if I hear one more presidential candidate talk about the need for renewable energy, I'm going to throw up."

But that's not because he's not pleased that the topic is in the national spotlight. It's partly because he and others are worried these terms will become a catchphrase or buzz words that consumers might not fully understand or is never adequately explained.

Goodman hopes Biodiesel University will change that on the most fundamental levels.

Keep on Truckin'

Goodman plans to retrofit former transit buses into mobile science labs. (Photo courtesy of Biodiesel University)

One part of the Biodiesel University is developing a fleet of mobile labs that Goodman hopes to showcase in different venues during Earth Day or science fairs, for example. Students are "influenced by their parents and their teachers," Goodman notes, adding "the most prevalent technological object inside a school is a computer, and not many schools have any sort of energy or renewable energy, or wet chemistry innovations."

Goodman is in talks with the Washington area's transit authority for a donation of four surplus buses to be recycled into Biodiesel University mobile labs. One of the buses may have a summer home outside of the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Science center President and CEO Van Reiner sits on Biodiesel's advisory board.

Goodman hopes to roll out the first lab in the latter part of this year and is looking for corporate sponsors. He plans to field 30 mobile labs in five years and spread them around the country.

The first converted bus is under development and will be outfitted with a feedstock museum showing different kinds of agriculture and animal products that create biodiesel fuel. For example, there will be a processing section where young students can turn a crank on a press and squeeze mustard seeds while high school students will be able to study alternative fuel use in a generator, remote-control car or jet engine.

"We've got some very significant environmental and energy issues facing us now," he said. "To a large degree, the people who are going to be providing solutions to those problems are in secondary school now. [We need to] engage students at a relatively early age and get them excited about pursuing careers in the field, or at least be wise consumers."

Sandy Spring Friends School 6th grader Harry Leeser working in the garden. (Photo courtesy of Goodman/Van Riper Photography)

The project is in the process of developing curriculum for schools in the form of online content and related games. It already has built its first energy garden at Sandy Spring Friends School in Montgomery County, Maryland, to show students how to build an "energy garden." The group grew sunflowers and the kids were involved in every stage of the process by planting, watering, tending and harvesting the flowers. They have dried the seeds and are waiting to receive an oil seed press to arrive from India. The student gardeners also made soap as a co-product of the biodiesel production process and sold $450 worth at a school event. With Goodman's help, the school has fueled its fleet of 15 school buses with biodiesel made from recycled fryer oil from area restaurants.

Tapping into a Student Workforce

Jaimin Shah is a college student working on growing the project. He is concurrently pursuing business and law degrees at the University of Maryland and holds an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. He sits on Biodiesel's board of directors through a partnership with Maryland's Board Fellows program - their relationship is the first fruit of an initiative that gives a helping hand to some small businesses by placing MBA candidates on boards of local nonprofits. Biodiesel University's headquarters are at the university's business school where Goodman is a technology commercialization fellow. Shah said he has gained "real-world experience" by helping the nonprofit navigate legal issues such as whether to trademark its logo and other documents and to help set up the project's nonprofit 501c3 tax status.

"I was attracted to the project because I'm interested in helping youth and I'm really interested in alternative energies," said Shah.

Charles Calixto is one of four graphic design majors at the Maryland Institute College of Art who is taking classes specifically focused on Biodiesel University. His group is responsible for designing educational and promotional materials while last year's class focused mostly on identity and branding, he said. The art college also has a team of two student Web developers who are creating a new Web site for the project.

"I've enjoyed being part of Biodiesel because, besides from being part of something I believe in, I'm also part of learning about design, get to focus on real world projects that are socially beneficial," said the college senior speaking from his home in San Francisco, adding "but we're also allowed to explore and educate ourselves and become better, more well-rounded people."

"I think that there's so much opportunity for kids to pursue careers that can be lucrative to themselves and helpful to society," said Goodman. "If people are educated about these issues at an early enough age, everybody wins."

By Sharon McLoone |  January 22, 2008; 9:00 AM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
Previous: Stimulus Package for Small Business Owners? | Next: Business Leader To Call for 'Super SBA'


Please email us to report offensive comments.

this article is amazing, it helped me so much on this huge english report that i'm writing!

Posted by: Rachel Kindsvatter | January 23, 2008 2:05 PM

It is encouraging to see how Dan Goodman conceived an idea and turned it into a project that both educates young people and offers the hope that they will be the engineers and scientists who discover the alternative fuels of the future.

Posted by: Iris Kaufman | January 30, 2008 10:45 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company