STEM High School Programs

Creating Future Engineers and Scientists

Phenom SEM at Thomas Jefferson High School for STEM education

Phenom SEM at Thomas Jefferson High School for STEM education

Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) education has received increased attention in the US lately as our secondary schools try to catch up with peers in Asia and Europe.  With new initiatives coming from the White House, the National Science Foundation, and various private foundations, there are more opportunities to develop an ambitious STEM-focused program or even a dedicated STEM school.  Given the dwindling number of American students interested in science, this is a concern at colleges, universities and US industries that require an educated science and technology workforce.

Nanoscience Instruments has worked with high schools over the years of developing our Nanoscience Classroom. We are also noticing the increase in interest to develop hands-on courses and programs at high schools around the country.  The goal for many programs is to instill interest in students at an early age and foster that interest through high school.  To enrich programs with relevant applications, high schools are partnering with universities, community colleges, and local industry.  In this edition of the nanoAdvisor, several STEM programs are reviewed to provide a glimpse into the diversity of programs at US high schools.

Thomas Jefferson High School
Fairchild Wheeler High School
Loudoun County Academy of Science
Wheeling High School
Project NANO

Thomas Jefferson High School

Thomas Jefferson High School (TJHS) for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA is one of the top STEM schools in the US.  The number of post-AP courses rivals an undergraduate university program and gives ambitious students a great head start in their academic career.  In addition to upper level science classes, hands-on laboratories are integrated throughout the program.  Some of these labs are offered in conjunction with lectures while others are stand-alone labs. For the senior year of study, students are engaged in a research project that gives them insight into how research is done with relevant instrumentation.

TJHS is no stranger to nanoscale imaging.  First to use scanning tunneling microscopes in 2001, the school has since added atomic force microscopes (AFM) and a Phenom scanning electron microscope (SEM). These instruments provide a critical component to many research experiments.  The ability to characterize a newly manufactured material or visualize a recently discovered specimen is a key step in many types of research.

Students come from various disciplines to work on projects, such as programming students working on sensor or robotics technology.  Biology students are engaged with the SEM to visualize a wide variety of botanical and entomological samples.  Additionally, further insight has been found for deep sea trenches by examining samples under the SEM.  The ease of use of the Phenom excites both students and teachers. The number of uses for the instrument continues to grow.

Surface physics is another area unique to this program.  Students use chemical vapor deposition to grow crystals. Experimenting with flow rate, temperature and time, a variety of crystals are formed and studied.  The AFM is a very useful instrument to evaluate the structure of the different materials created in the laboratory.

Fairchild Wheeler High School

Fairchild Wheeler’s Biotech school in Bridgeport, CT uses a Phenom Pro scanning electron microscope (SEM) for their environmental research.  Teachers and students are actively involved to better understand invasive species, the impact of chemicals and medications on the environment, and environmental problems like the honey bee colony collapse disorder.

Fairchild Wheeler HS students study bees with the Phenom SEMFairchild Wheeler HS students study bees with the Phenom SEM

The Phenom SEM is becoming valuable for both in-class demonstrations and for independent research.  Additionally, understanding the environmental impact of common medications led to a collaboration between the high school and the University of Bridgeport.   This program will provide dual credit courses to Fairchild Wheeler’s students. The collaboration may also foster joint research projects with reciprocal access to instrumentation, researchers and additional resources.

Loudoun County Academy of Science

The Academy of Science in Loudoun County, VA, is a highly selective STEM school.  More than 10 times as many students apply than there are available seats, and with good reason – the school provides an exceptional program for students who want a science-focused high school experience. Academy of Science students are very active in district, state, national and international science fairs.

Students are required to develop, plan, and complete a 2-year independent research project before graduation.  Students choose a mentor for their project; the mentor can be a teacher or a local scientist. Results are presented on a regular basis to show progress, participate in science fairs, and be considered for publication.

In a recent project, students produced a photo-synthetic membrane embedded with cyanobacteria.  The Phenom SEM was used to image the membrane and locate the bacteria.  The students built their own electrospinning device to make the nanofiber membranes in-house.

Wheeling High School

Wheeling High School in Wheeling, IL (in metropolitan Chicago) has implemented a full nanoscience classroom that provides access to any interested students at Wheeling High School.  One of the motivating factors for creating a nanotechnology laboratory was to increase student interest in STEM by providing marketable research skills and professional development experiences. The high school has received much publicity for their progressive approach to STEM, including a visit from Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education.  Wheeling has several instruments – multiple SEMs, AFMs, STMs, and a 3D optical profiler. 

This year, many of their students participated in their very first Science Fair.  Eleven students were gold medalists and moved on to the Illinois state competition.  More than 20 other students also placed at the science competition. 

“Prior to the fair, the nanotechnology students had never performed authentic research and varied in their academic capabilities.  Thus, their success was extremely rewarding. I am awed by their growth as students and the development of their capabilities throughout this process“, said Lisa del Muro, a Wheeling High School teacher and IL State Fair coach.

Additionally, two Wheeling High School students recently presented their original research at a regional nature conference after conducting projects in Wheeling’s new nanotechnology lab.  One student presented her findings on exposing seeds to high temperatures that simulated wildfire conditions, a natural occurrence in combustible ecosystems. The SEM was used to examine changes in the seed morphology and germination. Another student presented SEM data on the structures of the seed coat that may provide hallmarks for recognition and description of plant groups for Midwest legumes.

Project NANO

Project NANO (Nanoscience And Nanotechnology Opportunities) is a collaborative effort between Portland State University and high school faculty that was designed to increase K-12 students’ understanding of nanoscale phenomena through inquiry-based activities that use research-grade optical and electron microscopes as investigative tools.  The project started in 2009 with high school teachers Mike Blok and Keith Gross from Beaverton and Lake Oswego high schools in the Portland, OR area.

Project Nano operates workshops that train K-12 teachers to operate the Phenom SEM. The project offers a pedagogical model that is designed for 25-35 students in a classroom.  The teachers are provided individual instruction time with the SEM, background information, links to content standards, and science inquiry curriculum development.

Upon completion of the workshop, participants join a network of 75+ teachers.  They receive access to the Project Nano toolkit, in-classroom assistance, and access to other teacher-developed lessons in nanoscience and nanotechnology.  The Project Nano Toolkit includes a Phenom SEM, digital light microscope, and consumable items. projectnano8.wix.com/project-nano