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High schoolers enjoy unique look at high-tech microscopy

Metro High School physics students at CEMASMetro High School physics students sit in the CEMAS virtual learning digital theater while analyzing the microstructures in their samples.

A group of Metro Early College High School students recently operated some of the most sophisticated microscopes in the world.

In early May, The Ohio State University’s Center for Electron Microscopy and Analysis (CEMAS) held a week-long outreach program called the CEMAS-Metro Science Enrichment for science teachers and students.

The successful outreach program is supported by generous funding from the Honda-Ohio State Partnership, enabling the project to expand from a pilot program with a smaller group of students. This year, the program included both Blake Holderman’s physics students and Gregory Pilcher’s chemistry students. CEMAS staff and graduate students mentored the high schoolers.

The use of advanced electron microscopy as a visualization tool is a key component of STEM education and research. CEMAS researchers are able to routinely "see" features in materials on the atomic and molecular scales, and applying these tools to educational outreach can provide powerful inspiration for students at all levels.

CEMAS Outreach CoordinatorsOutreach coordinators involved in the spring 2017 program. L to R (top row): David McComb, Bryan Esser, Frank Scheltens, Joanna Pinkerton. L to R (bottom row): Isabel Boona, Blake Holderman, Jessica Alexander. According to CEMAS Research Scientist Isabel Boona, the program emphasizes that real-world research problems are almost always addressed more effectively through interdisciplinary teamwork.

“So we had groups of chemistry students prepare the bismuth-tin alloy samples,” she said, “and other groups of physics students analyzed and characterized them with the scanning electron microscopes available at CEMAS.”

The students then collaborated on a final report that discussed their objectives, results and conclusions. Framed as a cost minimization problem common in industry, the students were tasked with designing the least expensive alloy that still retained a specific strength.

To prepare the high schoolers in chemistry, Bryan Esser, a graduate student in Professor David McComb’s group, visited Metro High School to explain the basic principles of materials and alloys, and provide background for why material selection is so important.

The chemistry groups were then asked to calculate the weight percent and then the mass of both bismuth and tin for their experiment. Using proper safety precautions, the groups were asked to melt the alloys into a mixed liquid and pour the materials into two different molds.

“My students got to have real world experience balancing cost and strength for an alloy. Students were very excited to do this project and to collaborate with others in a meaningful way," said chemistry teacher Pilcher. I even had one student say 'I could see myself doing this as a career someday'.”

The students then had the opportunity to visit CEMAS and look at their samples in the scanning electron microscope. They even operated the microscope themselves within the virtual learning digital theater. The students were also exposed to other engineering disciplines during a short discussion session. Since these students are primarily sophomores and juniors, this allowed them to be introduced to certain engineering fields that they may have never heard of before, but may want to study in college. 

Physics instructor Holderman added, “as an educator, it was great to see my students' faces light up when they realized there was a new world under the (scanning electron) microscope. A number of my students have already indicated their interest in pursuing this as a career field, and three weeks ago they didn't even know it existed!”

While the chemistry students thoroughly enjoyed melting the materials and making real-world calculations, the physics students relished the opportunity to use an electron microscope and the other state-of-the art equipment at CEMAS.

"The training and use of the microscope facilities at CEMAS provided our science students a different perspective by asking them to apply their scientific content knowledge in a real-world context,” explained Peter DeWitt, Metro High School vice principal. “The opportunity to use an electron microscope themselves is a unique and valuable exposure to the important field of materials characterization."

Tags: Students