Week 5: What a Wonderful Week!

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Sunday, July 12, 2015


Shauna LeFebvre

This past week was wonderful!  Monday was my first day working with the middle school teachers.  We started with introductions and ice-breakers, followed by an overview of the work done at NIST.  Then we had a tour of NIST’s museum.  This was amazing because we got to some of the standards that used to be used to define different units of measurement.  We saw the old standards for the meter and the volt, among other things.  I should note that these standards aren’t used anymore because scientists have found other ways to define most measurements without a physical object.  For example, a meter is the distance light travels in 1/299792458 of a second.  The only measurement that is still based on a physical object is the kilogram, and NIST is working to change that.  After lunch we were given a lesson on metrology.  Metrology is the science of measurement and is often used to make the standards that scientists and companies use to make products.  Overall, it was a wonderful first day.

All of the SPS interns went on a tour of NASA on Tuesday.  We were able to see Max and Rachel’s work spaces and some other really cool places.  We went to NASA’s clean rooms where they were assembling a satellite and also got to see some of the test facilities.  During lunch we were able to attend NASA’s jamboree and see what research is going on at NASA.  After we finished our food from the food trucks NASA brought in for the even we were shown the Hubble command center.  And no NASA tour would be complete without a stop at the gift shop!

On Wednesday I returned to NIST to continue working with the NIST Summer Institute for Middle School Teachers. We started off with a demonstration on concrete.  We learned how scientists add different substances to the cement mixture depending how much time they need before it sets.  After that we saw a presentation by the US Patents Office.  The presenters took us through the process of getting a patent or trademark and the different types of patents.  After lunch we saw a presentation on how to bring computer programming into middle school class rooms.  I was interested in this subject because I have seen the importance of programming in science since I’ve been in college and wish that it was introduced to me when I was in middle school.  The final activity of the day was small group tours of some of NIST’s facilities.  Everyone got to choose which lab they wanted to see.  I chose to go to the ballistics laboratory.  We learned about how NIST tests the bullet-proof and stab-proof armor worn by police.  They also study cases where these types of armors fail to see how to improve the standards that they are made by.  They even fired a round into a vest to show us how it works.  We got to see firsthand how inaccurate most of the cop shows on television are.  Even if you have a bullet-proof vest on, you will still be injured if you get shot.

Thursday started with an introductory presentation on the scanning electron microscope (SEM).  We got an understanding of how small the objects the SEM is imaging really are.  It can image objects that are a fraction of the width of a human hair! Next, Hannah and I were able to present some of the SOCK demos to the teachers.  This was a win-win because Hannah and I got useful feedback on the SOCK and the teachers were given demos they can use in their classroom.  We showed the teachers the straw pan pipes activity and the Doppler ball demonstration.  We will also be presenting some more demos on Monday, so I’m looking forward to that!  After lunch the middle school teachers saw a presentation on DNA and genetics.  We learned how the patterns in our DNA carry instructions to make certain proteins in our cells.  We also learned about dominant and recessive genes work by taking the genes of two parent dogs and determining how their puppy would look.  The middle school teachers had a lot of fun with this activity.  Thursday ended with a lecture on NIST’s research on trace contraband detection.  We learned how NIST is developing different methods of collecting fine debris  (dust, really) off of people’s bags, clothes, hands, etc. and analyzing that dust to see if it contains traces of explosives or other contraband.

Friday was all about chemistry.  The presenters showed the middle school teachers how chemists separate different compounds that are all mixed together.  They also gave the teachers a demo that they could use in their classrooms to help students with the concept.  They also presented on the differences between chemical and physical changes and let the teachers make their own polyurethane foam to demonstrate those differences.  After ordering out pizza for lunch, there was a demonstration on mass spectrometry.  This is a method of identifying different molecules by seeing how far they travel.  For example, heavy molecules will not go as far as lighter molecules.  Then the teachers were lead through a demo launching water balloons with different amounts of water in them.  We had a set of balloons with a known amount of water in them and a set without.  We launched the known balloons and measured how far they travelled.  Then we could figure out how much water was in the unknown balloons by launching them and seeing how far they travelled.  Finally, we ended the first week of the Summer Institute with an ice cream social.

This past week was so much fun!  Since I’m in that place in my life where I should start thinking about what I want to do after I graduate college, I have taken up the habit of asking the presenters how they got into the field of work they are in today.  It was surprising to find out that a lot of the scientists at NIST started off in a different field than they are in at the moment.  Leaning this is also comforting, because now I have seen people who have changed their path in the middle of their careers and are still doing pretty well for themselves (if I do say so myself). I have always heard that this was ok to do, but now that I have seen it for myself, I’m not so worried about not having my life figured out yet. I have learned so much and have enjoyed working with the middle school teachers.  I can’t wait to see what next week has in store for us!  

The NASA Goddard Clean Room
NIST Ballistics Laboratory
Summer Institute teachers working on SOCK activities
Some more Summer Institute teachers working on SOCK activities
Summer Institute teachers making polyurethane foam
my own polyurethane foam

Shauna LeFebvre