Sophisticated microscope brings science excitement to classrooms

Real-world instrumentation opens a window into an unseen world, generating new inspiration and raising younger students' awareness of STEM careers

15 December 2014

scanning electron microscope in STEM education

Student Anh Nguyen (left) mentored by Yessica Torres (right) reviews transmission electron microscopy images, in a program at Foothill College (California).


BELLLINGHAM, Washington, USA -- A series of workshops featuring a sophisticated microscope have generated excitement in classrooms from elementary schools to community colleges, and educators say students' interest in science has grown as a result.

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) educators have been learning about how to present the workshops through presentations at events hosted by SPIE, the international society for optic and photonics. Papers from the presentations are now being made freely available in the SPIE Digital Library.

With the rapid development of new technologies in every sector, a future workforce well-versed in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is essential. Scientists and educators have teamed up in workshops for the last three years to learn how to inspire students with the opportunity to look into the micro world with a scanning electron microscope (SEM). With a commercial desktop version of the SEM loaned to schools, students had a chance to look closely at a variety of samples provided by teachers and students, from pieces of cork to the head of a "stink bug."

"Microscopy provides a picture window into an exciting but typically unseen and often unimagined world," says Michael Postek, senior scientist in the Physical Measurement Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

A hands-on laboratory was part of all the workshops, which included a session with a tabletop SEM. Experts were also available to discuss instrument theory, operation, applications and sample preparation. Until recently, the SEM was a large, intimidating and imposing instrument relegated to laboratories at universities or within industry. Today, a new class of much smaller, tabletop instruments is available. Basically the microscope portion of the instrument is a "peripheral device" to a laptop computer. The SEM can easily be used at higher magnification and resolution than the unaided eye, or even most optical microscopes.

Postek has chaired special sessions at SPIE events for the past three years to highlight success stories of educators and their classes. The SEM "allows them to step out of their current reality and enter into this exciting microscopic world to produce startling images or everyday objects."

Papers presented at the SPIE sessions are available on the SPIE Digital Library, and are summarized in an article by Postek on the SPIE Newsroom website, with links to each.

Student performance data presented in the articles shows that the students participating in these programs are positively responding to this stimulus and have had dramatic improvements in their test scores, Postek says.

"It has been clearly demonstrated that excitement for STEM must be fostered at the earliest stages of our education process because far too few of our students are adequately prepared for the challenges ahead. Working with such real-world instrumentation opens exciting and unique doors to a future in science," he says.

SPIE is the international society for optics and photonics, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1955 to advance light-based technologies. The Society serves nearly 256,000 constituents from approximately 155 countries, offering conferences, continuing education, books, journals, and a digital library in support of interdisciplinary information exchange, professional networking, and patent precedent. SPIE provided more than $3.2 million in support of education and outreach programs in 2013.


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