Monday, November 7, 2011

RET Influence

It has been over two months since I finished up with my RET program.  I have stayed in touch with many of the people in the Reinhard Lab.  I try to visit them whenever I'm in Boston.  I hosted a cookout at my house for the members of the Reinhard Lab in August so I would get to meet them outside the lab environment. I found one of the most memorable aspects of my RET experience is meeting all the members of the Reinhard Lab.  My RET experience has provided me with a great learning experience as to the cultures of these different people.

The first quarter of my school year is just about over.  During the first quarter I have told my students about my summer experience.  I have placed my completed poster outside my classroom along with other pictures of what I did over the summer.  I have demonstrated to my students how to get dressed to work in BU's clean room.  In fact, I actually wore the clean room suit as my Halloween costume in school.  Another connection I have made between the RET and my curriculum is as my students were building with their Lego kits, I would tell them about the robot that I built and programmed over the summer.  I'm hoping that during the next week to use some of the materials that I purchased for my classroom through the RET program.  Last week I had three members from the Museum of Science visit my classroom.  We talked about my classroom being a beta site for their new middle school engineering curriculum. All in all, I believe that my RET experience has made a great influence on my teaching approach.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Poster Day

Yesterday morning all five of the teacher RET teams made presentations that summarized what they had been working on during the last six weeks.  It was impressive to see the work that everyone had completed.  Just a couple of weeks ago it seemed like many of the teams were struggling to complete just one thing so they could claim success.

For the presentations, I dressed in "typical" RET clothes - khakis and a polo shirt.  Many of the other teachers were in more formal attire - shirts and ties for the guys and dresses for the ladies.  I should have thought to wear more business attire to the presentation.  I remembered this morning to put on a shirt and tie for this afternoon's poster session.

I believe that our presentation went well.  Before the presentation started, Marvin was driving our robot around the top of the tables to demonstrate its capabilities.  I know we modified our presentation on the fly based on comments presented by other groups.  One of the items we added was how we were going to take what we had learned over the summer and apply it to our classroom.

This afternoon is the poster presentations.  Along with the posters, the Photonics Center will also be having a cafe with refreshments.  My wife and son are scheduled to come to the event and I'm looking forward to showing them the labs in which I worked.

Friday morning we will wrap up the RET program with a meeting to provide our feedback.  An outside consultant will ask for our input on the program and then Helen and Cynthia will see if we have any final comments before we are off for the rest of the summer.  We have three "call backs" during the school year.

I'm still trying to figure out what's the best use of my $500 budget for school supplies.  I want to go back into my classroom's storage closest because I think I saw some laser/fiber optic equipment that I can use to supplement my communications lessons.  I really want to know what I have before committing to purchase an item.  Just my luck I would latter find out that I already have one!  Especially in this day with limited school budgets, I'm really trying to get the biggest bang for my $500.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Last Week's Comments

As I sit here on the 9th floor of the BU Photonics building over looking the Charles River, I can't believe that this is my last week in the RET program.  Marvin and I finished our experiments last week.  Marvin spent a great deal of time on Friday trying to make sense of all the data we had collected.  I'm sure that he will be spending some time today tweaking the graphs he has created.

During this final week we wrap up several assignments that we have been working on during the last couple of weeks. Last Friday afternoon we made our final presentation to Dr. Reinhard's lab group.  This week we wrap up by make our formal presentation on Wednesday morning and then our poster session on Thursday afternoon.  We are scheduled to participate in a debriefing of the RET program on Friday morning.  Then we are done with RET - except for the three call backs during the school year.

Over the last five weeks I have made the following observations:
  1. During our brown-bag presentations, the topic of entrepreneurial skills kept coming up.  I hadn't thought about it, but with all the on-going research, it makes sense that they want to take the discoveries that they make in their labs and turn them into a "real" product.  Thus, they not only want to share with the world what they have discovered, but also they would like to realize a profit from all their hard work.
  2. I was very surprised by the discussion on the level of effort principal investigators spend writing proposals for the ever dwindling amount of available research funding.  With a "hit ratio" of around 10%, they have to write several proposals in order to have enough money to keep their labs afloat with funding to support their staff and the lab's/building's infrastructure.
  3. I am amazed at how hard the grad students - as well as the post-doc - work in the lab.  They routinely spend eleven hours a day - six days a week - working in the labs.  I have also found everyone in the lab that I was assigned to be extremely helpful.  Anytime I had a question about my project, they would stop working on their work and help me.  I was truly blessed to work with them during my time at BU.  I don't think I would have completed as much as I did with out their help.
  4. The resources in the Photonics building are tremendous!  I am still amazed at all the specialized machinery that is housed within the different labs.  When I compare how tight the science department's budget is at my school, I drooling over the resources that have been made available to me this summer.
  5. Along with the wonderful resources, the staff at the Photonics Center has been a real pleasure to work with.  Similar to the grad students, the staff - especially Paul Mak, Helen Fawcett and Bill Kallinich - have worked with me to help my project move forward.
  6. During the past five weeks I have found it very helpful to be able to speak with other middle and high school STEM teachers participating in the RET program.  I have been able to share best practices and get great input and suggestions from these teachers that I will be able to bring into my classroom starting in September.
  7. I have found that in research you need to be very flexible.  As we discovered during our two rounds of testing, what we thought would happened was not what actually happened.  If something didn't work as planned, it wasn't a failure, but an opportunity to try something else.  I enjoyed working hand-in-hand with the post doc and grad students to determine why we weren't getting the results we expected and developing a Plan "B" or "C" to get back on track.  This logical approach to research closely follows the engineering design process.  Thus, I was able to experience some of the frustrations that my students face while they do projects in my classroom.  I can bring this experience into my classroom and explain what I was feeling during my experiments this summer and hopefully make better connections with my students.
  8. I still can't get over the extremes used in the research process.  An example of what I mean by extremes are how very very small of the objects we were dealing with for our experiment.  I still have difficulty grasping the concept of how big is a micrometer or nanometer!  The concentrations of the explosive material - parts per billion or trillion - we are trying to detect with our sensor is mind blowing!  Also, the very low pressures required within some of the equipment are tough to put into perspective.
  9. I enjoyed the class on the project-based learning model.  I found that I had been doing this approach in my classroom for several projects, without knowing there was an "official" name for what I had been doing.  The class helped reinforced my thoughts that this is the best way for students to learn about engineering concepts.
  10. Finally, I found that the lab I worked in is like a family.  The older members (post docs and older grad students ) help the younger students.  Everyone pulled together to reach the same goal - success for the lab.  I found myself very glad to be assigned to this lab group.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Over 80,000 data points!

Yesterday we finished our testing and Marvin has calculated that we now have over 80,000 points of data!  Marvin is in the process of trying to figure out what all that data means and how to present it so it makes sense.

As we had experienced when we did the first round of testing last week, our second round of testing didn't go exactly as we had planned.  After performing a few tests and not getting any readings from our measurements, everyone seemed to be stumped.  We had one post doc and two grad students helping us try to figure out what was not working.  After some mid-course adjustments, Marvin and I started to get SERS measurements that showed a "spike" in the correct area.  This meant that our chips were detecting the DNT vapors.  They were actually doing what we had designed them to do.

After getting a series of "good" measurements, we started to modify the samples to see if our chips could detect the presence of DNT at different temperatures and levels of concentrations.  We also testing the effectiveness of our chip when the DNT was in an actual real-world setting in our lab.

Marvin got to be pretty good at working the SERS for this second round of testing.  We found the amount of the NaOH solution sprayed onto the surface of the chip had a major impact on our measurements.  If there was too much or too little solution, then we wouldn't get good results.  The best results were when you took a measurement on an area that had just a little of the solution that had not yet evaporated.  It was tricky at times finding these spots.

While Marvin has been crunching the data, I spent yesterday afternoon calculating the vapor pressures and associated concentrations of the DNT solutions we had tested.  Because we were using solid DNT, it made the calculations tricky.  I found a few articles that provided me with the information I needed to perform the calculations.  I showed my calculations to one of the grad students and he provided me with comments.  After revising my work, I calculated in one case we tested our chip's detection when the DNT vapors were at a concentration around 14 parts per billion!

Next Friday will be the last day of the RET and Marvin and I will be tied up most of the day.  The Reinhard Lab Group typically has their project status meetings on Friday afternoons.  Therefore, even though our formal final presentation and poster are not due until next week, Marvin and I have to get our presentation ready to present to the Reinhard Lab Group this Friday.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Our first round of testing didn't go exactly as we had planned

Marvin and I had been planning and coordinating for days all leading up to our first round of testing.  When we were done, our results were not what we had expected.  I can see why people would get frustrated working in research because their experiments don't work the way they had expected.  Speaking with some of the other members of the Reinhard Lab, they have come to expect that things might not work out the first time.  Also, I was aware that the prep time we had spent on our experiment was nothing compared to other experiments that were being conducted in the Reinhard Lab.

I felt stressed during our experiment.  I was responsible for placing our exposed sensor chip in the upright microscope.  Once I placed it on the microscope I had to bring the image into focus, then change to a higher power lens, refocus, change locations on a section of the chip, turn off the light, turn on the laser, open/close certain mirrors, etc. in order to take the measurements.  I needed to do all this set up quickly because the liquid we sprayed on to the surface of the chip that had "captured" our explosive material's vapor molecules was evaporating away.  As I was focusing the microscope, I could see the liquid evaporating  Based on our literature review, once this liquid evaporates, then you basically can't take any more SERS readings.

What we had expected to see were large "spikes" on the SERS measurements that would allow us to demonstrate the chip was able to detect the explosive material.  After our first couple of measurements, we weren't seeing the results we had expected.  At this point we stopped and spoke with the grad students asking for their comment and advice.  Adjustments to our original testing plan had to be made on the spot and we had to go in another direction.  This idea of being flexible is a very important concept in research - as well as in being a teacher.  If your original plan doesn't work - try something else.

It was very helpful to speak with several different people in the lab to obtain multiple points of view.  Marvin and I also spent some time with Jing, who had done the original research that we are building upon.  After her review of the results, they were not as bad as we had originally thought.  She was able to take our SERS readings and "subtract" our original background measurement to create a new graph that showed some "spikes" in our measurements.  The issue we faced was because the concentration of the explosive material was so low, the "spikes" we saw from our SERS measurement, we much lower than anything Jing had experienced in her previous experiments.  Thus, after speaking with Jing, Marvin and I had to develop a revised testing plan for our next round of testing.

Today's activities have demonstrated to me that you need to be
  • Objective
  • Willing to listen to another person's ideas/suggestions
  • Know when to ask for help
  • Good at coordinating with others
  • Flexible 
  • Determined
while working in research.  These skills are also very important to being a good teacher.