A few weeks ago now, the NANO collaboration finished its second NANO Summer Institute. As I blogged before, it was a big success. While the pictures below are from the second week, I want to use these pictures to illustrate three of the many activities that we tested out at the institutes and will definitely use in our classroom visits during the upcoming school year. These activities are simple to put together, but are very good for introducing the more complex activities that we have planned for afterward (like Atomic Force Microscope and Scanning Tunneling Microscope analog activities and data analysis activities).
The first activity involves building a basic telescope from tubes and lenses. The telescope that the teachers made, and the students will make, is nothing special. It is a rather poor telescope by modern standards. However, the activity is a tangible way to start thinking about microscopy and imaging. Simple parts are put together to make a tool that can be used to study extraordinary things (far off objects like buildings, trees, mountains, clouds, moon, planets, stars, etc.).
Once created, the teachers use the telescopes to look at the world around them. One interesting effect of the telescope is that it inverts the image seen by the viewer’s eye. Things moving up look like they are moving down, and things moving to the right look like they are moving to the left. This is just one of many “artifacts” that imaging tools create. An artifact in this sense is “any error in the perception or representation of any visual information introduced by the involved equipment or techniques.” Any scientist who uses tools and scientific/mathematical techniques to improve their work must learn to identify correct data and data that is caused by the equipment, etc. Exploring the unknown leads to situations where unknown things must be identified in one way or another. In some cases, the unknown thing might actually be a “fake” object that is just “noise” or some other effect.
The best part was that we had the chance to look like pirates! Arghhh!
Another simple activity is just to look at many, many, many common objects under a microscope. We had digital microscopes for each teacher, and we all looked at grass, bugs, rulers, coins, paper, computer chips, flowers, seeds, ink, mouse pads, etc. … you get the idea. We looked at anything that we thought of and could get our hands on. This sort of exploring is what scientists doing cutting-edge research do. It is a lot of fun, and helps those participating in the activity get the sense of wonder that exploration brings. It also conveys the idea that science is not just a base of knowledge put forward by the “scientific community,” it is also exploration of the unknown, which really just means satisfying natural human curiosity.
The teachers liked this activity so much, we just had them run with it for almost an extra hour. We sent Becky outside to find more things to look at, like bugs! We even had the teachers turn the microscope head around so that they could see how the computer translates the image, and that orientation is an arbitrary concept to the computer tool, and in some cases, arbitrary for the scientist too.
The last simple activity that I want to talk about has to do with awe and real demonstration. When a person sees a cool object that, up to that point, seemed mysterious they get excited and are more willing to imagine themselves interacting with that object. They are more engaged, they ask more questions, and they want to get involved. (It is interesting how many things I use as an engineer that are now ordinary to me, but would draw interest from someone else for hours!) We took the teachers on a tour of campus labs.
At the new engineering building, we showed them the clean room and all the support equipment, like these tubes and control systems:
Becky showed them her Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM), which is at high vacuum and requires cooling with liquid nitrogen:
She also bragged about the “homemade” STM in her lab:
While we cannot take all the students on tours like this, we do have portable scopes (Scanning Electron Microscope, Atomic Force Microscope, and Scanning Tunneling Microscope) that we can take with us. When we do scans of real objects and surfaces (no matter how boring we think they are), those who have even the smallest interest become deeply engaged, since they want to know how it works, and often cannot believe how small these devices can actually be. (Even looking at that huge metal cage above that Becky is showing off, it is interesting to note that the actual STM device is actually on a tiny part of the whole. The rest is just an isolation structure for vibrations and temperature.)
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