High School Students Revel in Research, Take Away Lifelong STEM Lessons

By: Ashley Duvelius

Ten high school students embrace the unique opportunity to perform nanotechnology research alongside esteemed UC faculty and students.

When it comes to learning, are you a listener, an observer, or a doer?

There are different teaching methods in which a student can engage that will allow them to retain information at various rates. Studies have shown that a higher retention of learning is achieved when participatory teaching methods are implemented. In fact, the retention rate is 75% for students who learn and practice by “doing.”[1]

Taking this one step further, research also illustrates that such methods are crucial to a student’s future as “hands-on learning can also significantly contribute to students gaining the 21st century skills they’ll need as they develop into the next generation of business owners, innovators, managers, and employees.”[2]

The UC College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) acknowledges and aligns with this evidence, offering ten high school students (grades 9-12) the rare opportunity to perform collegiate research as a part of the Summer Institute program. The research portion of the Summer Institute program began in 2010 as part of a grant from the National Science Foundation to introduce nanotechnology into the undergraduate curriculum at UC.  Professor James Boerio, PhD and Head of the CEAS Department of Engineering Education, was the Principal Investigator for the NSF grant.  Each summer since 2010, the research program in Summer Institute has been organized and led by Professor Boerio and by Magnolia Modaress, MS and Program Manager.

As a vital component of the Summer Institute program, the hands-on classroom and lab experiences are aimed at improving underrepresented ethnic students’ understanding of science and math. Through the program, which is in its fourth consecutive year, faculty members and graduate students assist in the development of students' math/science preparation and understanding of these disciplines as they relate to engineering.

CEAS graduate student, Bryce Ren, examines a sample with Ellayne Perez, Jordan Wilson and Kyle Glennon.

CEAS graduate student, Bryce Ren, examines a sample with Ellayne Perez, Jordan Wilson and Kyle Glennon.

Mondays through Thursdays, students are divided into two teams and each group participates in a structured 90 minute lesson session, followed by a related hands-on or computer applications laboratory 60 minute session experience in science and math. Additionally, on Fridays, students attend informative seminars which focus on different college disciplines and career topics. For example, numerous students recalled key lessons they had learned from the thought-provoking “Life Goals” discussion.

This summer, students partook in five different experiments pertaining to nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the hot field of engineering which centers around materials, devices and other structures with at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers (one billionth of a meter or one hundred thousandth of the width of a human hair).

With the assistance of CEAS engineering students Ian Bruzas, Derek DeArmond, Andrew Dunn, Seyram Gbordzoe, Mark Haase, Rachit Malik, Xing Pei, Bangxing Ren, and Yuan Zhao, the high school students performed the following nanotechnology-centric research activities:

  1. “Exploration of nanotubes” with Vesselin Shanov, PhD and professor in the CEAS Department of Biomedical, Chemical, and Environmental Engineering.
  2. “Applications of carbon nanotubes” with Laura Sagle, PhD and professor in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences Department of Chemistry.
  3. “Electrochemical sensing of lead in water” with Ian Papautsky, PhD and professor in the CEAS Department of Electrical Engineering and Computing Systems.
  4. “Magnetic separation and magnetic hyperthermia” with Donglu Shi, PhD and professor in the CEAS Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Engineering.
  5. “Active nanosystems for destruction of [water] contaminants” with Dionysios Dionysiou, PhD and professor in the CEAS Department of Biomedical, Chemical, and Environmental Engineering.
Summer institute 2015

These research activities were categorized into three main experimentation modules:

Magnetite Nanoparticle Synthesis

Iron oxide nanoparticles, which hold magnetic properties, have diameters between 1 and 100 nanometers. To put that in perspective, these particles are one billionth of a meter or one hundred thousandth of the width of a human hair. These magnetite nanoparticles have been extensively investigated for their useful magnetic and optical properties. Applications of their properties include magnetic resonance imaging, hyperthermia, and magnetic separation.

Hyperthermia using magnetite nanoparticles was first investigated as a possible alternative treatment in cancer therapeutics by using an alternating magnetic field.

summer institute 2015

In this module, students developed hands-on lab and chemistry techniques, while also gaining basic chemical understandings of relationships of magnetite nanoparticles and hyperthermia properties. Students synthesized and isolated magnetite nanoparticles via hyperthermia.

Magnetic Hyperthermia

Similar to the aforementioned Magnetite Nanoparticle Synthesis experiment, the goal of this module was for students to examine the heat changes that occur in magnetic fluids. The process involved in magnetic hyperthermia is related to energy dissipation, or production of heat, when a magnetic material is placed in an external alternating magnetic field.  These magnetic materials, are dispersed in a solution creating a magnetic fluid.  The magnetic fluid, when placed in the alternating magnetic field, generates heat.

Concentration of nanoparticles in a magnetic fluid also plays a role in hyperthermia.  The larger the concentration of nanoparticles that makes up a magnetic fluid, the greater the heat losses will be.

The students examined the heat changes that occur in magnetic fluids to learn how concentration affects magnetic hyperthermia of iron oxide.

Electrochemical Sensing of Lead in Water and Sensor Fabrication

Electrochemistry is the branch of chemistry that studies the reactions that take place at the interface of a metal electrode with an ionic conductor such as a buffer. These reactions occur when atoms or ions change their oxidation state because of a transfer of electrons. In this module, students learned the chemistry behind two different electroanalytical techniques—cyclic voltammetry and anodic stripping voltammetry—to observe the potential window of detection and determine the concentration of metal ion in solution, respectively.

Students receive instructions prior to entering the lab.

Students receive instructions prior to entering the lab.

The students learned how to fabricate electrochemical sensors in the cleanroom while gaining a basic understanding of electrochemistry and sensor miniaturization. They also discussed the biomedical and environmental applications of electrochemical sensing methods and they will understand the advantages of a point-of-care electrochemical sensor.

At the start of the program, students were both excited and nervous for the chance to perform hands-on research amongst the finest minds in the engineering field. Yet, as time progressed, their confidence quickly grew, along with their enthusiasm, expectations and work ethic.

Ellayne Perez, ninth grader from William Mason High School, reflects and advises, “This course is challenging but that’s how your future undoubtedly will be. Be prepared to come and work—the results of your efforts will be both rewarding and stimulating.”

About the Summer Institute  

UC's five-week Summer Institute (held Monday to Thursday, 9:00 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.) is available to students who have completed the Family Science Academy program with a “B" average or higher in math and science. The program seeks to increase the awareness and interest of underrepresented ethnic students, targeting Cincinnati Public Schools, but open to students from greater Cincinnati. 

Program activities emphasize: Content, the "what" of science and math; Attitude, the idea that subjects can be mastered; and Process, the method of using science and math as a tool to resolve everyday problems. Students enroll in Institute math and science courses to prepare for their upcoming academic year. The Institute also organizes career development workshops, which expose them, though activities, to the different disciplines of engineering, and field trips. A pre- test in science and math is used to access the proficiency level of the students and to assign them to their appropriate math/science classes.

CEAS graduate students Andrew Dunn and Lucas Zhao test for magnetic hyperthermia with Xavier Warren, Jordan Smith, Gavriel Davis and Jai Williams.

CEAS graduate students Andrew Dunn and Lucas Zhao test for magnetic hyperthermia with Xavier Warren, Jordan Smith, Gavriel Davis and Jai Williams.