New program inserts high school teachers in competitive research facility

Brookhaven National Laboratory serves as a classroom for teachers learning cutting edge research techniques they can then apply to high school curriculumBrookhaven National Laboratory serves as a classroom for teachers learning cutting edge research techniques they can then apply to high school curriculum

By Danielle Hall

Fifteen teachers on Long Island are part of a new initiative, which will make them experts in synchrotron science.

The teachers are a part of a new program by Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) to include high school students in real-world research using the facility’s multimillion-dollar National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS II), one of the world’s most powerful X-ray machines, that allows scientists to image objects the size of DNA.

“I think it’s important to go back to the student and say you can do something that very few people on the planet are able to do,” said Dan Williams, a life sciences teacher from Shelter Island High School.

Williams and his students are working on research projects that could apply to drug development for severe nerve diseases like spina bifida and anencephaly. Students hope to test how food dye binds to a protein called lysozyme, a model protein with a well-studied structure. The light beam from NSLS II can show where the dye binds to the protein and students can then compare those results to predictions made by computer models. The simple experiment serves as a template that can then be applied to drug binding in diseases where the target protein isn’t well known.

“It’s simple because we have the new beam. We need nice and simple things that gives us something we can grow from,” Williams said.

BNL researchers, teachers, and students will collaborate to produce competitive proposals that will be judged and chosen by an independent review board against other scientists.

“The best way to get out to the community was through the teachers,” said Vivian Stojanoff the lead BNL scientist in charge of the program.

The project began as a collaboration Stojanoff and Aleida Perez from the BNL Office of Education. Noting the success of a previous program, InSynC at the old NSLS that closed in September 2014, the two set out to revive the connection with local students.

In a week-long course that took place between June 27 and July 1, local high school teachers became students. They attended lectures about the capabilities of the light source like spectroscopy — a kind of sample fingerprinting that describes the molecular makeup of a liquid or powder. Soon the teachers were preparing samples for the beamline alongside the BNL scientists.

“It was one of the best professional development weeks I have ever spent,” Jennifer Gatz, an AP biology teacher from Patchogue Medford High School said. “You have to have educators that get the professional development to know what’s available for students.”

“My knowledge grew leaps and bounds. This was absolutely phenomenal, even from someone who has been playing with this for four or five years,” Williams said. “ I grew a lot, and the teachers I talked to who were new, they grew a lot.”

In past programs using the NSLS Williams felt excited by the information and opportunities presented at the workshops but upon completion felt ill prepared to develop actionable research proposals with his students.

“They skimmed the surface, told us there were cool things out there, and told us come back with proposals. I had no idea what I could do,” Williams said.

While reinventing the NSLS program, Perez and Stojanoff said they developed an ongoing relationship with the participating teachers. This time around the teachers will continue to meet with BNL scientists.

“We’re helping them write proposals. We want them to come but we can’t short circuit the process,” Alex Soares a BNL researcher said. Sean McSweeney, another involved researcher, sees the mentorship as “The right thing to do.”

Scientists see programs like NSLS-II as especially important because they form links between students, teachers and scientists and are a way to insert real-world science into the classroom.

“It’s really quite important that what goes on in science classrooms reflects to a certain extent what scientists are really doing,” Keith Sheppard, Director of the Institute of STEM Education at Stony Brook University said.

The NSLS-II program not only shatters the divide between traditional chemistry, biology, and physics by incorporating all subjects into one project, it emphasizes the unique and exciting opportunities in science careers. Aleida Perez sees it as her mission to ensure the next generation is excited about STEM careers and opportunities.

“I have a commitment to see this to completion with a measurable outcome,” Perez said.

Stojanoff became hooked on NSLS research during a summer visit before becoming employed by BNL. “I had a chance to probe, to get a taste of all the different methods at the light source,” she said. For her, the NSLS-II is a playground.

As students prepare proposals for research projects with the beam, perhaps one or more of them will see it as a playground as well.