Brookhaven Launches Program to Bring Big Science to Classrooms

InSynC gives opportunity for high school teachers, students to use National Synchrotron Light Source

UPTON, NY — A new program announced today at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory will give high school teachers and their students access to multi-million-dollar instruments at one of the nation’s premier scientific facilities. In its first year, this program — Introducing Synchrotrons into the Classroom (InSynC) — is expected to engage dozens of teachers and students in hands-on experiments at Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS). The NSLS produces intense x-ray, ultraviolet, and infrared light to study everything from advanced materials for solar cells and computer components to complex proteins from living cells.

“We often hear teachers say that students learn best in a laboratory,” said NSLS biophysicist and InSynC co-founder Lisa Miller. “But some of the most interesting experiments require equipment that’s too expensive to provide in a high school laboratory. InSynC is a way to bring some of this big science into the classroom.”

Starting this summer, interested high school science teachers will participate in an intensive, three-day InSynC workshop at Brookhaven to learn about the NSLS, a facility that, every year, attracts about 2,200 visiting scientists from around the world to take advantage of its unique and powerful instruments. The session also will introduce teachers to experimental techniques available at the NSLS, and show them how to write a proposal to use the facility. At the beginning of the school year, these teachers will work with their students to develop a synchrotron experiment. Possible subject areas include: energy, environmental sciences, geosciences, plant biology, biomedicine, structural biology, and robotics. Their proposals will be reviewed by a panel of scientists and teachers, and the groups with the highest scores will bring their experiment to life.

From the comfort of their classrooms, students will discuss projects with NSLS scientists, share data, and conduct their experiment via Internet-enabled tools.

“InSynC is an effort to help teachers and students understand the way science really gets done,” said University of Chicago geoscientist and InSynC co-founder Tony Lanzirotti. “That involves formulating a hypothesis-driven scientific problem, writing a competitive proposal to investigate it, and lots of collaboration.”

The NSLS has a long history of advancing science education. Hundreds of students already have participated in unique projects at the facility via webcast, ranging from the analysis of sediment, mussels, and oysters in local waterways to studying soil samples surrounding backyard decks built with chemically treated wood.

“For the past several years, we have worked with teachers and NSLS scientists to bring authentic research into the classroom,” said Scott Bronson, of Brookhaven’s Office of Educational Programs. “InSynC is the culmination of these efforts. The launch of InSynC also will help sustain investments in teachers made by the Academies Creating Teacher Scientists (DOE-ACTS) program of DOE’s Office of Science, which aims to enhance teachers’ understanding of science and technology by connecting them with national laboratory scientists.”

Initially, InSynC will be aimed at regional high schools, but the organizers say it has the potential to become a nationwide competition, involving the participation of all U.S. synchrotron facilities.

“Every student deserves the chance to be an NSLS scientist for a day,” Lanzirotti said.

The Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Students (WDTS) within the DOE Office of Science is providing support for InSynC.

“The Office of Science National User Facilities, such as the NSLS, are home to some of the most exciting and innovative science being done in the world,” said WDTS Director Bill Valdez. “Exposing high school teachers and students to these unique resources will increase their knowledge of modern science and will help disseminate this knowledge to other students and teachers. If this pilot program is successful, BNL’s InSynC program could be the leading edge of a movement in DOE to make all of the DOE National User Facilities available to students and teachers across the country.”

The NSLS is funded by the DOE Office of Science.

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