Bright Spots in Home Schooling

May 17, 2006  

Homeschooler Receives Prestigious Science Scholarship

Physics major and homeschool graduate Eli Owens was named a 2006/2007 Goldwater Scholar in March 2006. A junior at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia, Eli was one of three WVU students—and 323 U.S. college students—to receive the merit-based financial award.

Goldwater Scholar Eli Owens displays his research on silicon nitride at a February 2006 college event.

Photo courtesy of West Virginia University

The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship is given to college sophomores and juniors who excel in math, science, or engineering and who plan on obtaining advanced degrees in one or more of those fields. "I was pretty excited," says Eli, 19. "I was honored that I had been chosen." The $7,500 scholarship will help finance his senior year at WVU.

To qualify for the Goldwater Scholarship, Eli was required to work on a research project proposing a solution to a problem in physics. With the help of his research advisor, Dr. Martina Bachlechner, an assistant professor in the physics department, Eli decided on a project using computational materials physics. The project (which Eli hopes to complete in summer 2006) involves studying the properties of silicon nitride, an insulating material used in solar cells.

"When we know how silicon nitride fails, later devices will be able to be made stronger and more efficiently," explains Eli. Physicists experimenting with silicon nitride typically stretch the material to discover how it breaks. Eli's project is an innovative spin-off of these simulations. Instead of stretching silicon nitride, Eli will impact it with outside objects, thereby simulating the continual bombardment solar cells would face outside of Earth's atmosphere. Eli, who is also a NASA Scholar, will present quarterly and end-of-semester reports on his findings to NASA, which provides the WVU physics lab with considerable funding.

"Being homeschooled gave me a work ethic to work on my own and be self-motivated, and really strive for things without someone sitting there pushing me," says Eli, who was homeschooled his whole life along with his four younger siblings. His parents taught him science, including an intense biology class in high school complete with labs in the Owens home. (Eli's father has a PhD in electrical engineering, and his mother previously taught math at the middle-school level.) "Homeschooling helped prepare me for a more advanced academic setting," Eli says.

The junior's interest in physics escalated during a calculus-based physics class he took at community college as a high schooler, an opportunity afforded him by the flexibility of homeschooling. "I had an excellent teacher," he says. "I think [my interest in physics stemmed from] just really seeing how the world works and the mathematics that are behind it-it was cool seeing how it all fit together."

Obtaining a PhD in physics tops Eli's list of future plans, though he has not decided on his area of concentration. After graduate school, he would like to either teach at the university level or work in a national lab. Eli also enjoys hunting, fishing, and running in local road races.

Click here for more information on the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship.

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