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.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Getting ready for our first test.

Over the last few days Marvin and I have been working to pull everything together so we can run the first round of our sensor testing on Wednesday.  It is amazing the number of people we need to coordinate with in order to move forward with our experiment.  When we left on Tuesday evening, we had actually started the experiment.

Speaking with other teacher teams, we appear to be ahead of the rest.  Many of the teams have run into different issues that have delayed them from performing their proposed experiments.  If things go well on Wednesday, we might be able to do a second round of testing next week.

It is amazing how fast the program is going!  Last week was the half way point.  On Monday Mike spoke to us about the presentation and poster that are due during the final week.  This means we really need to complete any testing before the end of next week so the data can be incorporated into these items.

After Mike's presentation, Jared and I sat with him to discuss how we can incorporate the topic of fiber optic communications into our lesson plans.  Jared and I are both middle school teachers and would like to incorporate this type of technology into our communications strand.

Our lesson plan deliverable is due at the end of this week.  I have written mine around the different components in a communications system, the parts of a typical universal system model, and the differences between copper-based vs. fiber optic-based system.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

We need to have a "Plan B"

As we heard during Dr. Bifano's presentation, Marvin and I need to come up with a "Plan B" for our proposed experiment.  We had been marching right along in anticipation of being able to start our testing the end of this week or early next week.  Our chips had been prepared, the solution that is sprayed onto the surface was all set, the room seemed to be ready, we had been trained on the use of the surface enhanced Raman microscope, etc., but then we read the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the chemical we were planning on using and everything had to change.

Our original idea was to step outside the lab and test our proposed sensor in a more "real-world" environment.  Marvin and I had thought of a way to test the effectiveness of the sensor as it is moved farther away from the explosive material.  This information would be helpful in knowing how close we would need to position our robot before running the test.  The MSDS stated that the chemical material we were using was more dangerous than I had originally thought. Yes, I know it is an explosive material, but just the handling of the material and the vapors/dust it gives off are both very hazardous.  Therefore, we needed to drop back and think of a "Plan B" for our testing program.

It now appears that all of our testing will have to be conducted inside a fume hood.  We are trying to think of ways to modify the space within the hood to simulate non-lab conditions.  We have sent some thoughts out to several people to get their initial impressions about our revised plan.  Once we get comments back, Marvin and I can revise our original testing plan and submit it for approval.

In the meantime, Bo has been able to show us how to use the surfaced enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS).  We will use this machine after we expose our chips to the explosive material.  This was another piece of very sophisticated equipment that is available within the Photonics Building.

I am amazed at how helpful the grad students have been in showing us how to use all the different pieces of equipment.  Also, how willing they have been to take time out of their own research to assist us with our project.  I feel that we will be able to actually get something done within the limited time frame we have in the Photonics Center.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Start of the third week

I spent most of Monday in the clean room.  In the morning I was part of the group being shown how to do an evaporation onto the wafers we made last week.  During the evaporation process, a very thin layer (about 10 nanometers) of chromium was deposited onto the surface of my wafer.  The machine that performs the evaporation procedure first creates a very low pressure (3 x 10-6 Torrs) in the container where the wafers are stored.  Once the proper pressure is obtained, then an electrode heats up the metal until it vaporizes.  The vapors are then allowed to deposit onto the surface of the wafer at a controlled rate.

Once the deposition of the metal was completed, we completed the lift off procedures by first placing the wafer in a bath of acetone.  The acetone removed all the chrome that was not in the area of the photoresist.  The wafer is then rinsed in methanol and finally cleaned with DI water and dried with nitrogen.  We will continue to work with our wafers next week.

During the afternoon Marvin and I worked with Yan to make the second and final evaporation of gold onto our sensor chips.  The difference for this procedure was that the chips were mounted into the evaporator at an angle so that gold nanorods would be created.  We applied approximately 500 nm of gold on the surface of our chips.  Tomorrow we are scheduled to inspect the chips using a scanning electron microscope.

During lunch we had Dr. Bifano speak to us about adaptive optics and his experience with start-up businesses.  He was a great speaker and provided good graphics to explain the complicated concepts he discussed.  Since starting the RET I have notice how important the concept of entrepreneurship is stressed to the students at BU.  The goal is to take what it developed in the labs and bring it to industry.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Second Week Progress

I have made a lot of progress during our second week.  I have learned a great deal about basic research and the complexities of working in a laboratory environment.  Let me talk about the specific project I am working on.

The basic idea for the project is to be able to develop a sensor that can "sniff" the air for vapors given off by explosive materials like TNT.  The sensor needs to be very accurate and be able to detect very small  amounts of the explosive material.  The long-term goal of the sensor is that it would be able to replace a bomb-sniffing dog.

The focus of the summer research for teachers is two-fold.  First, we are to design and program a robot that would be able to carry the sensor into a hazardous area, expose the sensor, and then return it for analysis.  We are to use the Lego Mindstorm NXT kit to build the robot.  The programming of the robot is meant to be completed using LabView software  The second portion of the project is to continue with the basic testing of the sensor to understand its capabilities in different situations.

Marvin and I have been building our robot "car" to be radio controlled so we could drive it to/from the site of the possible explosive materials while carrying the chip.  We are modifying our car so that it will keep the sensor covered until it is at the site we want to test for explosive materials.  This week we also have been working to develop the software programming required to not only maneuver the car, but also activate the lifting device for the sensor's cover.  We are programming our robot in both NXT 2.0 as well as LabView 2009.

The basic technology of the sensor and its analysis after being exposed to explosive materials has been previously established through laboratory-based experiments conducted by Dr. Reinhard's group.  We have proposed to test the sensor is a more "real world" application.  We want to determine the effectiveness of the sensor in being able to detect the presence of the explosive vapor at specific distances from the explosive source.

This week we have started to fabricate the chips necessary to act as the required sensors.  Based on the earlier testing, we plan to keep the concentration of the explosive material constant (15 ppb) and use the optimum exposure time of five minutes.  The two variables we plan to test would be the distance the sensor is from the explosive material and the ability to test the sensor outside the typically controlled laboratory environment.  We have developed a draft testing plan and have sent it to the grad students that have been helping us for their review and comment.

Next week we will complete the fabrication of our chips so we can start to perform our initial testing.  Based on the results of this testing, we will either move forward with the rest of our testing plan or revised the plan.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Real Progress

Tuesday was a great day because of all the progress Marvin and I were able to make!  First - and most importantly - the IT Department finally came to our lab and not only loaded LabView onto our computer, but they also gave us administrative rights to load other required software.  A BIG thanks to Helen for all her efforts to make that happen.  I have loaded the Lego NXT software as well as one other program onto the computer so we now can get down to the business of programming the Lego robot.

Marvin and I also had a great meeting with Dr. Reinhard.  Not only did we discuss the parameters of the robot he wants us to include in our design, but we were also able to talk about the basic scientific aspects of his research along with his teaching methods for grad students.  We found several similarities between what Marvin and and I experience at the middle/high school grades and what Dr. Reinhard expressed for issues with his graduate students.

Marvin and I also were able to speak with Helen about how her efforts in the renovation of an existing lab based on the professor's input.  Depending on the level of the renovations, they can take anywhere from a month to over six months.  In fact, Helen is going to be renovating the lab Marvin and I are working in with our robot.  Yesterday some staff came in to start moving out the unneeded equipment.

Marvin and I also met with Bo and Yan to discuss upcoming lab work and we were able to schedule some times over the next couple of days to continue our observations of different lab procedures.

For the afternoon I was able to work on designing revisions to our existing robot car to build a platform that will hold a petri dish and cover.  The idea is to mount the sensor chip in the dish surrounded by fluid (NaOH) with the lid on.  We would drive the robot to the suspected explosive material and then raise the lid exposing the sensor for a period of time.  Then the lid would be replaced and we would drive the robot back and take out the chip for analysis.  The goal of placing the chip in the petri dish with fluid is to reduce the chances that the fluid would evaporate on the surface of the chip before it is exposed to the explosive material and thereby making the chip ineffective.  We still need to investigate exactly how we will be able to open/close the lid of the petri dish.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

First Day in the Clean Room

On Monday five of the RET went into the fabrication room to start making our chips.  After suiting up in our basic "bunny suits" we had to put on the extra clothes because we were going to be working in the extra clean room.  Helen and Paul helped us throughout the process.  Some of the teachers had already done some of the processes last week through their lab.

The goal of the activity was for each teacher to apply photoresist on two wafers and then spin them,  soft bake the wafers, then expose the wafers based on the mask that was developed during last year's RET, develop the wafers, clean them, check the results under a microscope, and then hard bake the wafers.

For the most part the process went smoothly.  It was alittle difficult working with two pairs of rubber gloves on. Helen suggested wearing the second pair in case you get photoresist on the outside pair, you can take them off and not expose your hands to any of the chemicals,  I was lucky that I followed her advice because while I was cleaning the spinning machine after everyone had spun their wafers, I ripped one of my gloves.  I was able to take it off and replace it without exposing my skin to any of the chemicals.

It appeared that there was some underlying problem with the exposure and developing of everyone's wafers.  When we inspected the work under the microscope, there was extra "stuff" on the surface so we didn't have a clean exposure.  Helen and Paul were a little confused why this occurred and Paul actually prepared his own wafer to see if he could determine the cause of the problem.   

In the end all the teachers finished their two wafers and carefully placed in the storage tray.  Next week we will continue to use the wafers in our development of our own chips.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

End of First Week Thoughts

I typically get to BU around 7 AM to beat the traffic.  I sit in the first floor student workroom.  This morning Jared joined me and we had a great conversation about implementing an engineering curriculum into middle school.  We both only have a short period of time to impart all the technology/engineering information required by the Mass DESE so our students do well on the 8th grade science, technology, and engineering MCAS test.  I had mentioned to Jared that I had to develop my own curriculum and would bring it in next week so he might be able to be find an activity that would fit into his curriculum.

On Friday we started by having a great presentation on "smart lighting" by Dr. Borogovac.  Some of the technology that they want to incorporate into a "typical" light bulb is very impressive.  I hope the time frames that were mentioned during the presentation are valid because I want to go to Best Buy and purchase one of these devices and try it out in my home.

Dr. Borogovac also spoke about a summer program they offer to high school seniors to get them interested in electrical engineering.  We were allowed to play around with some of the equipment the high school seniors used during their two week program.  At the end Dr. Borogovac demonstrated the use of a photophone that allowed messages to be wirelessly passed from one computer to another via the use of light pulses from an LED light.  I'm sure my middle school students would enjoy this activity.

For most of the rest of the afternoon Marvin and prepared to make our presentation to Dr. Reinhard's group.  We polished our PowerPoint presentation and divided the presentation responsibilities.  Right at four o'clock all of the member of Dr. Reinhard's group came into the conference room.  We finally were able to introduce ourselves to the entire group.

In addition to make the presentation about who we are and the summer RET program, we also provided our understanding of the four technical articles that we had been provided the first day we were in the lab.  Also, we outlined the next steps in the process and stressed the need for Marvin and I to find the connections between the research and our classroom activities.  We provided everyone with a copy of our schedule during the next five weeks so they can start to plan where Marvin and I can fit into their existing research schedule.  In general I think the presentation went well.  We have already set up another meeting with Dr. Reinhard and other members of the group to collect information about the project.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Starting to Build the Robot

Today I was able to start working on the Lego NXT robot that my team is responsible for designing and programming.  After checking that I had all the parts, Marvin and I worked to build our first robot car.  After completing the building phase, we started to program our car to move.  We were able to get it to move across the floor and then back up.  Some more modifications will have to be done.  We also found a website that demonstrated a way to build a remote controlled car with most of the same parts.  Marvin and I agreed that this type of car is what we really need to have for our project.  We also spent time reviewing all the other pieces that had been provided.

Our goal for the next couple of days is to build the remote controlled car and see if we can bring it to a group meeting on Friday afternoon.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

First Week

The first week of the 2011 BU Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) finished last Thursday  The last two days have been jam packed with briefings and training sessions.  The BU staff have been very helpful and been able to answer any questions that have been asked.

I'm still a little confused exactly what is photonics and especially as it relates to biophotonics.  I want to meet the people in the lab I will be working in for the next six weeks.  I want to talk with them about my proposed project and pick their brains about exactly how the project ties into the field of photonics.

A wide variety of Boston-area middle and high school teachers are in the program.  We all seem to get along with each other and have alot in common.  I have met my teaching partner and we both are anxious to get our "hands dirty" on the project.