by Carl Hoffman
In the summer of 1994, high school senior Beth Miller spent two weeks at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "The experience," she says, "changed my life."
Although long fascinated by science, Miller had not had the opportunity to take advanced placement science classes. At Oak Ridge, she was privy to a whole new world of high-tech labs filled with top-notch students and to an inspiring new wonder called materials science. After just two weeks, she picked a new college and a new major. By the end of the year she had graduated valedictorian of her high school class in Elderton, Pennsylvania. Today she is a junior at Pennsylvania State University majoring in polymer science and engineering.
Miller credits her life-changing decision to her participation in the Appalachian Regional Commission's Summer Science Honors Academy at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Every summer, students from throughout the Appalachian Region are selected according to state criteria and invited to Oak Ridge for two weeks of hands-on work in research laboratories on everything from materials science to robotics to manufacturing technology. ARC pays their travel and room and board, and the Department of Energy pays for the supervising scientists and their labs. Some 250 students have participated since the program began in 1991.
Along with the students, the program has brought 70 middle and high school science teachers from Appalachia to Oak Ridge for two weeks for similar laboratory research intended to enrich their teaching abilities back home. "The experience truly inspired me," says Joseph Boutwell, a teacher of integrated science at Philip Barbour High School, in Philippi, West Virginia."I'm incorporating lots of ideas from Oak Ridge into my classroom, and it's expanded my understanding and, hopefully, my students' understanding, too. Plus, I've been sharing new ideas and laboratory techniques with my colleagues."
Inspiring Future Scientists
At Oak Ridge science isn't something to be talked about, but projects to be carried out. Students choose two areas to work in from the five offered: metals and ceramics, robotics, manufacturing technology, computer science, and telecommunications. Over the years project participants have designed automatic, quick-fill pharmacies; burrito factories; highly energy efficient straw houses; World Wide Web sites; and race cars, and have researched everything from carbon-bonded carbon fibers for use on satellites to the best metals for use in hip replacements.
For students coming from small schools, the opportunity to work in Oak Ridge's labs can be inspiring and eye-opening. Benjamin Kelley, a junior at South Carolina's College of Charleston who plans to pursue a career in architectural engineering, attended the program in 1994 as a senior from Tamassee Salem Middle High School, in Salem, South Carolina. Although Kelley worked in Oak Ridge's metallurgy lab, which had nothing to do with engineering, "the experience inspired me—everyone was focused on school and on research, and that was really different."
Indeed, to visit Oak Ridge during the summer program is to see proof that teenagers can be as excited about math and science as about the latest Jewel music video on MTV or the newest Nike basketball shoes.
On one stifling July afternoon, Anne Duffus, a senior at Allegany High School in Cumberland, Maryland, and six of her peers are hunched over a slightly medieval-looking tensile-strength-testing machine in building number 4508. Their task looks simple enough. A row of thin, three-inch-long pieces of aluminum lie on a tabletop. Each has been heat-treated to a different temperature, altering its tensile characteristics; those heated to a higher temperature are stronger, but less pliable. The trick is to find the perfect combination of strength and pliability for a new generation of American auto bodies. One at a time, under the watchful eye of ORNL development staff member David Alexander, Duffus and her peers slip the wafers between two outstretched clamps and hit a button."Make sure you label the pieces properly," coaches Alexander. The machine hums, a pen darts up and down a piece of graph paper like an EKG stylus, and the piece breaks with a barely audible snap.
Anticlimactic though it may seem, this is raw, applied science in action at one of the nation's elite research facilities. Student pencils fly, and equations and graphs take shape. "This is hands-on, ongoing research," says Duffus, with a bright-eyed grin, "and we'll have to use algebra and trigonometry to calculate the pressures in pounds per square inch. It's, like, fun!"
"I always used to tell my teachers that I didn't need math in real life. But here I see it's something not just to learn at school but to take home for the rest of your life and really use," says Quentin Pearson, a junior at Huntsville, Alabama's J.O. Johnson High School. "It's cool."
Rebecca Lyn Wolf, a senior from Blairsville, Georgia, worked with three-dimensional computer imaging and virtual reality in Oak Ridge's Centers for Manufacturing Technology. "I always thought of science as pouring chemicals, which doesn't interest me at all," says the 17-year-old from Union County High School. "And I never saw the point of algebra or trigonometry. But this week I've used both, and I've learned that science is much more varied and interesting. If I don't go into teaching, I think I'll pursue computers," she says.
Still, sometimes the experience is less about wowing than about simple reality.
And that can be just as inspiring. "We're using some of the same tools and machines that we used in my high school metal shop," says Duffus. "I imagined that a state-of-the-art research institution would use nothing but huge robots and fancy stuff that we couldn't touch." Instead, Duffus found equipment and techniques that were, she says, "pretty down-to-earth," all of which actually helped, rather than hurt, her ambitions: "After this, I definitely want to work in a scientific research lab after college," Duffus says.
Teachers Learn, Too
For teachers, the two-week sojourn at Oak Ridge is a time to learn new science and new ways to teach science, to make it come alive in their classrooms. "To get out in the field is great," says June Irmischer, who teaches physics and earth sciences to ninth- and twelfth-graders at Watkins Glen High School, in Watkins Glen, New York. "I'm like the kids. I don't like to be talked at," she says, slipping into a nylon safety harness before climbing 50 feet up into the forest canopy on a narrow, aluminum tower.
Irmischer and eight other teachers are deep in the National Environmental Research Park, an official-sounding name for the thick woods surrounding Oak Ridge. Stretching beneath the forest canopy, next to the 50-foot-high scaffolding, is a Rube Goldbergish series of long troughs, laundry baskets, and PVC piping—part of the equally official-sounding "Walker Branch Throughfall Displacement Experiment"—a six-year project examining the effect of rainfall on the chemistry of the forest. The troughs catch 33 percent of the rainfall in one section of the forest (thereby depriving it of one-third of its normal moisture), and funnel it to a second carefully measured section (thereby providing one-third more water than normal). A third section, the control, is left completely natural. In between slapping mosquitoes and dodging branches, the teachers on the ground measure the moisture content of the soil beneath the troughs, and the teachers in the tower measure the photosynthetic rate and moisture content of leaves high in the canopy, under the tutelage of ORNL research staff member Paul Hanson.
The teachers, who are selected at the state level, receive a small stipend and room and board for their two-week stay. They choose projects from several areas of research offered. The theme of the 1997 program was "Problems and Issues of the Twenty-First Century;" and topics included environmental studies, alternative fuels, robotics in the workplace, and high-tech manufacturing. Immersing teachers in such "real" science is supposed to enrich their knowledge and, perhaps more important, inspire them, to make their science teaching innovative and energizing to their students back home. It seems to be working. "Most of my students are from farm families, and the issues and problems we're examining, like acid rain, have a direct effect on their lives," says Clare Doty, who teaches physical science and biology at Avoca Central School in Avoca, New York.
"Yeah, this is neat stuff," echoes Irmischer, descending from the tower. "You're out in the field, and you're seeing what kind of data collection is really happening. We have a large marsh and wooded plots close to the school, and when I get home I'm going to do something similar on a smaller scale."
"I'm interested in how real scientists work and how to transfer that back to my classroom," says Judith Moody. After her work at Oak Ridge, she brought back to her classroom everything from a newfound appreciation for safety and technical standards to a determination to better show her students how science can help solve real-life problems. "The research that we do [at Oak Ridge] puts us on the cutting edge," Moody says, "and lets us show our students that, say, hydrogen-powered vehicles don't come from science fiction but from places like Oak Ridge."
Moody's eyes brighten. "It makes you grow," she says. "Now my students ask me where I'm going every summer. They appreciate teachers going out and learning something new for them."
Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.