High School Students Use Big Machines for Big Science

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High school science teachers will tell you that students usually learn science best in the laboratory, recreating the experiments that defined modern scientific discovery and theory. Unfortunately, many of the most interesting experiments require instrumentation and equipment that are simply too costly to provide in a classroom laboratory, with price tags that can reach into the millions of dollars.

Through an innovative collaboration, Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island has offered local teachers and students access to such tools at the National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS), where beams of light in the x-ray, ultraviolet, and infrared wavelengths are produced by two synchrotrons for use in experiments. Research conducted at the NSLS has yielded advances in biology, physics, chemistry, geophysics, medicine, and materials science.

Through the program, Introducing Synchrotrons into the Classroom (InSynC), high school teachers and students have access to the synchrotrons from their classrooms through a competitive, peer-reviewed proposal process.

"Working with the scientific staff, we are trying to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers for this country and for the Department of Energy," said K-12 Programs Manager Scott Bronson. "It is important that we create new and exciting pathways to introduce students to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. "

Since summer 2010, the program has trained both teachers and students, and introduced synchrotron science into the high school curriculum. Annual workshops are designed to provide high school science teachers the opportunity to learn about the resources at the shopping-mall-sized NSLS and its companion facility, the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN).

The workshops show science teachers how they and their students can use these resources, the same multimillion dollar instruments Nobel Prize-winning researchers are using for scientific discovery, to conduct real scientific measurements remotely from the classroom.

In addition, the workshops introduce some real-world scientific problems locally that can be investigated by students. Through generous sponsorship from education and science foundations, the workshop is offered to the community free of charge.

The program trains participants to formulate a hypothesis-driven scientific problem and learn to write a competitive "beamtime" proposal for a set of experiments using conventional and synchrotron-based methods. The beamlines currently equipped for remote access capabilities are used, including U2B (infrared microscopy), X26A (x-ray fluorescence microscopy), and X6A (protein crystallography).

An NSLS Proposal Review Panel, consisting of a mix of synchrotron scientists and science educators, reviews and scores the proposals. Ratings are based on scientific merit and the educational nature of the project. The highest rated proposals are allocated beamtime.

In its first year, the program drew 17 middle- and high-school science teachers to Brookhaven for the intensive, three-day synchrotron training workshop. Then, at the beginning of the school year, the teachers worked with their students to develop scientific hypotheses. Six InSynC research proposals were submitted to an international review panel, and three were allocated beamtime. In its second year, InSynC expanded from Long Island classrooms to those around the nation.

In one project, students studied how biofilms from bacteria, algae, and fungi might be used to clean up toxic levels of copper in fresh water. Each teacher selected a small group of students to conduct the experiment with them at NSLS, while the remainder of the students watched and participated in the study from their schools via Internet-enabled tools.

In another project, students compared the toxins in tobacco from commercial and organic cigarettes using an X-ray fluorescence microscope at NSLS. They found some surprises: the element polonium, which may lead to lung cancer, wasn't found in either of the tobacco samples. And, the organic cigarettes actually contained higher levels of potentially toxic elements.

InSynC proposals are accepted in all areas of scientific research. Based on the initial suite of beamlines available for this program, experiments in earth and environmental sciences, bioenergy, biomedical imaging, and structural biology are encouraged. In addition, engineering proposals involving the development of robotics for beamline operations will also be considered.

InSynC is an opportunity to introduce synchrotron science to students at a young age. "We are seeing a shortage and a future demand for scientists, engineers, and technicians that are trained to work at a synchrotron," said NSLS scientist Lisa Miller. "Introduction to these facilities early in academic learning is a way to motivate students to pursue this field of science."

Support for InSynC is provided by the Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Students within the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.