Fall 2003


Peggy McMahan

During the summer of 2003, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory hosted upwards of 80 undergraduate student interns for ten-week research experiences through Department of Energy sponsored programs such as SULI (Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships), CCI (Community College Initiative) and PST (Preservice Science Teachers). This year for the first time, the PST program was well attended, primarily through a partnership with the Center for Mathematics and Science Education, a NSF-funded program run by the Education Department at Cal State University at Fresno (FSU). This state university, located in California’s Central Valley, serves a large Hispanic population and provides many of the teachers for that part of the state.

Providing research experiences for such a widely diverse group of students has its challenges. Placing a student with a research group for the summer is easy – if that student is an undergraduate physics major from a top-ranked research university. Working with future teachers who have little course work in the physical sciences requires a special kind of science mentor with a willingness to teach subject matter as well as direct research. With this in mind, the staff at Berkeley Lab’s Center for Science and Engineering Education, headed by Rollie Otto, devised the Intensive Research Institute.

Four of the six number participants in this pilot program were math majors planning to teach mathematics. These students had only a few introductory courses in science and it would have been difficult to find a meaningful 10 week mentored research experience. Two of the participants were science majors who expressed broad interests in their preference for a summer research experience. A local high school teacher, Mr. Tom Knight, who had experience working at the Berkeley Lab joined the group as a content advisor to the students and methods advisor for the Berkeley Lab scientists leading the two week institutes. The stated goals were to provide:

  • A deeper understanding of scientific research,

  • Direct experience with modern scientific instruments, and

  • To update and enhance students’ knowledge of the scientific concepts, principles and theories behind the experiments.

Four scientists were asked to present successive two-week workshops designed to provide the students with:

  • First hand experience with scientific instruments and research methods,

  • Subject matter knowledge of the underlying science concepts, principles and theories related to the workshop activities, and

  • An opportunity to relate their newly acquired knowledge and skills to high school and middle school mathematics and science standards.

The four workshops presented in the 2003 Institute were:

  • Nuclear Science and Neutron Activation Analysis

  • Natural Terrestrial Radioactivity

  • Cosmic Ray Detection

  • Fingerprint Analysis at the Infrared Beam Line

In Nuclear Science and Neutron Activation Analysis (presented by Rick Norman), the students learned basic concepts of atomic and nuclear structure, radioactive decay, how to use Geiger counters, NaI and germanium detectors to measure radiation. They then took samples to a nuclear reactor for irradiation and analyzed them using neutron activation analysis.

Natural Terrestrial Radioactivity (presented by Al Smith) utilized the Low Background Counting Facility to familiarize students with the ubiquity of natural radioactivity and the significance to human health and explored applications to Homeland Security.
In Cosmic Ray Detection (presented by Peggy McMahan) students explored cosmic rays: what they are, how they can be detected, and what they can tell us about the origin of the elements in the universe. The use of accelerators to mimic the cosmic ray environment of space was discussed and the students observed a radiation biology experiment at the 88” Cyclotron. They built a cosmic ray detector and designed classroom activities around it. The first three workshops together made a nice package focused on nuclear science topics and the three presenters worked closely to integrate the material they presented.

Fingerprint Analysis at the Infrared Beam Line (presented by Mike Martin) focused on electromagnetic radiation, utilizing the infrared beam line at the Advanced Light Source. As part of an ongoing project using IR spectroscopy to obtain chemical information from latent human fingerprints, the students learned to collect infrared data on fingerprints, and analyze and interpret the spectra.

As one of the participating scientists, I can attest that my two week experience working with these students was very intense but at the same time highly rewarding. The students came in as almost a blank slate and left with some basic knowledge, an appreciation for scientific research, some familiarity with using basic laboratory equipment and – most importantly - an enthusiasm to bring what they learned to whatever subject they end up teaching. Enrique Lopez, one of the student participants, was quoted in an article in the Fresno Bee about the LBNL/FSU partnership: "Man, I think my work changed my teaching enormously. A lot of high school teachers can't say they had real laboratory experience. I got hands-on work with the latest technology that real scientists are using. When we go into the classroom, we will relate what we did." A critical factor in the success of the program was the close interaction between the scientists and the experienced high school teacher assigned to the program. His practical knowledge of what works and doesn’t work in a classroom was essential and he worked daily with the students to turn what they were learning into classroom activities.

The materials and activities used in all four workshops would be of equal value to inservice teachers as well as preservice and could serve as a model for other government and university laboratories. The subjects chosen also have the advantage of being applicable over several major classroom subject areas and grade levels, such as Earth Science, Chemistry, Physics and some math subjects. A shortened half-day version of the cosmic ray workshop will be presented at the Northern California AAPT/APS meeting in November 2003. More detailed information including material about any of these workshops can be obtained from the author at