Monday, 30 December 2013 09:12

Introducing High School Students to Laser Spectroscopy

     Jill Sewell shepherding Lambda Project in MIT Professor Keith A. Nelson's lab.

    Swampscott High School Chemistry and Physics teacher Jill Sewell turned a summer learning opportunity at MIT into a second job as a lab manager for Professor Keith Nelson's Lambda Project for high school students. "I feel blessed to have this come my way," Sewell says. It started from her participation in the Center for Materials Science and Engineering at MIT summer Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program. Sewell joined Nelson's lab for the RET, and he asked her to take on the Lambda Project. Sewell is the third lab manager for the Lambda Project, which began in 2004. The student projects are based on thermal and acoustic measurements which the Nelson lab has pioneered for analyzing heat transport in silicon and gallium arsenide. (See related article).

    Lambda Project Lab Manager Jill Sewell, far right, with students, from left, Andrew James, Kenny Li, Alexa Beatrice and Noah Gopen in the spectroscopy lab at MIT. Photo: Jeffrey K. Eliason

    Over two years, Sewell shepherded three groups of students from Swampscott and Saugus through the program, which lasts for three days on campus during April and summer vacations.

    Developing career awareness

    Bianca Rosato, a Saugus High School junior who participated in the Lambda Project in August 2013, says , "The experience was interesting, to say the least. It really opened my eyes to the incredible technology and education available at MIT. The advancements being made every day are truly amazing." Rosato and her lab partner are preparing a presentation to give at the Science Fair at Swampscott High School in January.

    Rosato hopes to attend Boston College for premedical studies, then move on to medical school and work at Children's Hospital in Boston. After her Lambda Project experience, she says, "I have a greater awareness of the career I'd like to specialize in after college. In addition, I feel like I have a stronger grip on my strengths and weaknesses within the scientific field."

    The Lambda program offers students hands-on experience in MIT labs. "There is a sound wave, and there is thermal expansion and students measure it," Nelson says. The students go to MIT Chemistry undergraduate labs, where they get to deposit a metal film on the sample. "It's high school kids, so they've never seen that sort of thing before. They get to see a little bit of materials fabrication, and then they get to see a little bit of advanced materials characterization by measuring these sound waves and thermal transport and things like this. They're crossing light waves and looking at interference patterns and diffracting waves off them."

    Learning length and time scales

    Students learn about nanometer and micron length scales and picosecond and nanosecond time scales. "For a high school student, what these length and time scales, and what sorts of things happen or are built on those time scales or length scales, are new. There is a lot of basic learning through exposure to things they are not normally seeing," Nelson says.

    In the lab, from left, Swampscott High students Haeree Park and Tori Thistle, and Saugus High students Bianca Rosato and Michaela Lovett. Photo: Jeffrey K. Eliason.

    "Students get in there and mess with the beams, they get to tweak an optical mount that steers the light beam around, which is also a learning experience," Nelson explains. "They say, 'Oh, wow, it's really sensitive; I hardly move it at all and the beam moves.' So they just get this sense of how I might be able to really execute something in a lab that is pretty sensitive, but yes it's doable, and they get to play with and see the signal and see the interference patterns and so forth."For Sewell, who worked in industry before becoming a high school science teacher, the MIT experience also is a challenge beyond her everyday work, offering a glimpse at the newest technology. "I'm also a mother so can make my own time," she says. She developed an application process for the program, requiring students to explain how it is important to them and what they see for their future. "I really only want to start with the kids who are excited to be there; they aren't only the kids in the honors classes. But some kids in the honors classes asked to go and were included," she says.

    The goal is to get the students involved in science and engineering, "Professor Nelson is always traveling but he tries to visit the lab when he can; he has met every group when they have been in the lab," Sewell says.

    Understanding the equipment

    Fourth-year chemistry graduate student Jeffrey Eliason introduces the high school students to the lab, makes sure they understand the equipment, and demonstrates how to take measurements. The students also visit a lab where Eliason deposits metal on thin film, usually copper or silver onto silicon wafer and observe that process. On their third day, the students run tests on the films, record their data, and Eliason explains to them how to analyze the data.


    Jill Sewell's participation in the Center for Materials Science and Engineering at MIT summer Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program led to taking on the high-school focused Lambda Project for Chemistry Professor Keith A. Nelson. Photo: Center for Materials Science and Engineering

    Sewell requires students to submit a written report or slide presentation for their work that they can share with their high school classmates. This year, they will also participate in Swampscott High School's Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) night, a popular event that draws as many as 300. "What I want to do in my room is set up the MIT Lambda research," Sewell says, envisioning LED lights with mirrors and lenses so the Lambda participants can show what they did at MIT but without the high power laser. "The whole idea is show families and the community what we are doing here but also to give them a hands-on experience so they have something physical to do," Sewell says.

    Sewell tries to select students in their junior year when they are near to finishing or have completed physics. So, students come to the Lambda Project with a basic understanding of wave patterns and properties of light but hands-on work with lasers is a step up from the standard Massachusetts high school physics curriculum.

    "When we go to MIT, this lab has a set-up for using the laser to move it into different directions by using different lenses and mirrors. They split up the laser (beam), they try to make it more intense and they try to make if more focused by putting mirrors and lenses in different places and directing it at the final target," Sewell says. "The
    goal is to send an acoustic wave through the metal, based on thickness, and it sends a certain frequency to the oscilloscope, so it gives a reading." Sewell hopes to include some Cambridge high school students in future groups.

    – Written by Denis Paiste, Materials Processing Center back to newsletter

    Last modified on Monday, 10 February 2014 16:33