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Franklin Steam Academy Students Experience Cutting-Edge Science at MRL

A seventh grader looks through a microscope during Franklin's visit to an MRL lab.
A seventh grader looks through a microscope during Franklin's visit to an MRL lab.

MRL safety engineer Maisie Kingren briefly chats about lab safety with the Franklin studentsMRL safety engineer Maisie Kingren briefly chats about lab safety with the Franklin students.

February 27, 2020

Explore a different reality via VR. Cover up from head to toe in a strange suit, safety glasses, and gloves and experience a cleanroom. See firsthand what equipment like a 3D Optical Profilometer and a Contact Angle Goniometer do. These are just some of the cool things Franklin STEAM Academy students got to experience during their field trip to the Materials Research Lab (MRL) on February 20th (the 7th graders) and 21st (the 8th graders). During their brief hiatus from the classroom, the students not only got to see, but get their hands on, some real-world, high-tech stuff MRL scientists use every day in their research.

The MRL tour was part of “Musical Magnetism,” a multi-disciplinary curriculum that uses rap and music to expose students to materials science and magnetism. Created by I-MRSEC (the Illinois Materials Research Science and Engineering Center), the program was designed to fulfill a couple of the center’s main goals: scientific communication and exposing folks, especially youngsters, to materials science and magnetism.

I-MRSEC Education and Outreach Coordinator Pamela Pena Martin explains why the curriculum included a visit to MRL. "We spend most of the 8-week program visiting Franklin. We love having the chance to welcome these students, whom we've been getting to know over the last several weeks, to our "home" at Materials Research Lab! Here we don't just show them research spaces but let them actually don a cleanroom suit, operate a scanning electron microscope, and do other activities that help promote the image of themselves as scientists, in hopes that this will encourage many of them to pursue STEM studies.”

Having Franklin students visit MRL isn’t just beneficial for the students; according to Pena Martin, it’s rewarding for the MRL scientists too. “Their presence also brings energy and enthusiasm that is truly inspiring to those of us doing research,” she claims. “We were each that age at one time, and it is fun to remember the experiences that sparked our own interest in science.”

I-MRSEC’s Kising Kang introduces a Franklin student to Virtual Reality (VR).
I-MRSEC’s Kising Kang introduces a Franklin student to Virtual Reality (VR).

Following a brief welcome by Professor Gina Lorenz, who earlier in the eight-week program had done an activity about invisible light at Franklin, MRL safety engineer Maisie Kingren briefly chatted about lab safety…and provided the groups with safety goggles. Seventh graders were then divided into six smaller groups, and eighth graders into four groups, which then rotated through different activities to experience what some of MRL’s different instruments and scientists do.

Scientists in charge of the different activities scheduled were delighted to welcome the students to MRL, giving them brief tours of their labs and exposing them to some of what they do, day in day out. For example, I-MRSEC’s Kising Kang introducted the Franklin students to Virtual Reality (VR), always popular with kids. At MRL, scientists actually use VR in their research; for instance, some use it to study molecules. So, donning the VR headset and equipped with a controller, students got a 3D look at molecules and other structures, and even got to move them around to see what the insides of the material looks like.

MRL Research Scientist Kathy Walsh interacts with Franklin students while demonstrating how a 3D Optical Profiler works.
MRL Research Scientist Kathy Walsh interacts with Franklin students while demonstrating how a 3D Optical Profiler works.

Image of a bumblebee's face that the Franklin 7th grade students took.
Image of a bumblebee's face that the Franklin 7th grade students took.

Tao Shang explains how MRL's cleanroom works to several Franklin students who are suited up and enjoying the experience.Tao Shang explains how MRL's cleanroom works to several Franklin students who are suited up and enjoying the experience. A Franklin seventh grader learns how to do dynamical mechanical analysis of a snack food.
A Franklin seventh grader learns how to do dynamical mechanical analysis of a snack food with the help of MRL scientist Roddel Remy.

In another lab, MRL Research Scientist Kathy Walsh demonstrated a 3D Optical Profiler for the students. This tool uses light to make finely detailed images of objects. During her presentation to the Franklin students, Walsh and the kids had fun looking at objects, which the students chose from a variety of samples she had on hand, then measured them using the profilometer. For instance, they looked at coins (a penny, and a quarter) that happened to be a Harpers Ferry quarter. “So I got to give them a pop quiz on history,” she explains.

They also looked at a myriad of other interesting things: a surgical mask with Hello Kitty printed on it, paper and ink, a $5 bill one of the students had, and a couple of hairs (one from Walsh’s head, and one from Julio Soares' beard). They also checked out some snacks (Cheetos and Chester's Hot Fries), and some insects (a stink bug and a bumblebee [to the right below is an image of its eyes). Walsh clearly enjoys showing off what her 3D Optical Profilometer can do:

“I love this instrument—you can put almost anything into it and get interesting images," she boasts, "so it's great for looking at real-world materials!”

According to Walsh, getting out of the classroom and into a real research setting like MRL can be beneficial for youth: “Classroom science tends to be aimed towards getting a specific result. All the experiments have been done already, so classroom science isn't about discovering something new but rather about seeing it for yourself.” But she says visiting an environment like her MRL lab gives the students a greater ability to explore.  “What are the odds that any other human being before you has looked at a Hello Kitty facemask with a 3D optical profiler?” she continues. “This open-endedness showcases the joy of exploratory science in contrast to the common experience of getting bogged down in trying to get "the right answer" for a lab report.” And the Franklin students appeared to have experienced the joy of exploratory science. "Some of the students were really into it,” Walsh reports.

Via another instrument, a Contact Angle Goniometer demonstrated by MRL senior research scientist Julio Soares, STEAM Academy students discovered how the instrument analyzes the shape of drops of liquid. The Goniometer allowed students to look at drops of liquid, such as water, up close to see the various shapes they can take on, from very flat to sphere-shaped, based on how the liquid interacts with the surfaces of various materials.

A tour of MRL’s cleanroom was another fun and unique activity for students. Because anyone who enters this special lab must completely cover their body in order to prevent the lab from being contaminated by dust, skin cells, or hairs, students had to suit up in cleanroom suits, safety glasses, and gloves. In addition to understanding what scientists who work in a cleanroom must do every day just to enter their lab, they also saw what’s inside the clean room and heard about experiments conducted there. Following their tour, students even got to take their cleanroom suits home!

One more instrument Franklin students learned about was a piece of equipment that performs Dynamical Mechanical Analysis (DMA). DMA analyzes how much force it takes to break different materials. MRL scientist Roddel Remy led the students in several activities which allowed them to see the equipment in action as they studied different materials, including snacks, to see how strong they are.

During another activity, MRL staff scientist Jade Wang, who operates the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM), worked with Franklin students who examined a butterfly wing using a small optical microscope, then through the SEM’s much higher magnification. They even got to help run the SEM and control which parts of the sample to look at. In fact, the 7th graders actually captured an image of a butterfly wing up close which was imaged in the SEM.

Concerning the impact the field trip had on the students, Pena Martin shares an anecdote: “We noticed them asking questions—some REALLY great and insightful questions!—and seeking connections between the research happening at MRL and their world. One student, as she was leaving at the end of the tour, told me she wants to come back again sometime. To illustrate her level of enthusiasm, the very next day, when we visited Franklin, the first thing she asked me was, ‘When can I come back to MRL?’”


MRL's Jade Wang instructs a Franklin seventh grader about how to use MRL's Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) during their visit to MRL
MRL's Jade Wang instructs a Franklin seventh grader about how to use MRL's Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) during their visit to MRL.

MRL senior research scientist Julio Soares demonstrates to STEAM Academy eighth graders how the contact angle goniometer analyzes the shape of drops of liquid.
MRL senior research scientist Julio Soares demonstrates to STEAM Academy eighth graders how the contact angle goniometer analyzes the shape of drops of liquid.

Story by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative. Photos by Elizabeth Innes, unless noted otherwise.

For more I-STEM web articles about I-MRSEC, see:

More: 6-8 Outreach, I-MRSEC, STEM Pipeline, 2020

Franklin students learn about different kinds of light during a visit to Profesor Gina Lorenz's lab on quantum optics, atomic/molecular spectroscopy, and optical magnetometry.
Franklin students learn about different kinds of light during a visit to Profesor Gina Lorenz's lab on quantum optics, atomic/molecular spectroscopy, and optical magnetometry.

MRL research scientist Honghui Zhou explains to Franklin STEAM Academy students how Focused Ion Beams are used in research.
A piece of hair etched with the Franklin logo using a focused ion beam. Dr. Honghui Zhou, an MRL staff scientist who runs this instrument, helped the middle school students etch this and then image it.
A piece of hair etched with the Franklin logo using a focused ion beam. Dr. Honghui Zhou, an MRL staff scientist who runs this instrument, helped the middle school students etch this and then image it.
Frankin students visiting Profesor Gina Lorenz's lab on quantum optics, atomic/molecular spectroscopy, and optical magnetometry put on special glasses that will enable them to see certain kinds of light.
Frankin students visiting Profesor Gina Lorenz's lab on quantum optics, atomic/molecular spectroscopy, and optical magnetometry put on special glasses that will enable them to see certain kinds of light.