The Host*: Developing new tools to engage next generations with science

The topics of scientific inquiry and nature of science are the major foci of our work in the Department of Mathematics and Science Education at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago.

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Sue, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex (85%) ever discovered, at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History © Shoffman11

For example, we worked on the High School Transformation Project (HSTP). HSTP was dedicated to changing the way science is taught at 23 Chicago high schools. We designed curricula in biology, chemistry, and physics that enhance foundational science knowledge, inquiry skills and knowledge, and nature of science through authentic and relevant learning experiences.

For example, in a class lesson designed to learn atomic structure, students had to follow various learning steps: Read the related book chapter; answer questions like “What are living things made up of?” and “What are elements made of?”; work hands on with true objects (in this case beans, peas and strings) to represent the atomic structure, and so on.

To ensure the success of the HSTP program, we provided each participating teacher with continuous and intensive support including on-site, expert, experienced instructional coaches, science faculty and graduate students. There were weekly networking meetings for all teachers. Scientists and educators from IIT and the Field Museum provided monthly professional development. Materials and activities were designed to specifically connect with each school’s diverse cultures and community interests.


Internship zone

I hosted Christian Strippel from the Chemistry Education group at Ruhr-University Bochum for his RESOLV internship in two stints: Fall 2014 and Spring 2016. During his first stay at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), we discussed preliminary ideas on the RESOLV exhibition and it was exciting to see how these ideas turned into the exhibition “Völlig losgelöst”. We also worked with Christian on a paper about research on teachers’ implementation of scientific inquiry in German Chemistry classrooms, which was recently published in the International Journal of Science Education.

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Business dinner for young researchers at Peggy Notebart Nature Museum © Christian Strippel


Currently at IIT, we are conducting an international study on seventh grade students’ views about scientific inquiry. Science education researchers have been so far disappointed at what students learn about inquiry in schools, but this has been a feeling mainly based on perception. In fact, until recently, there has never been a comprehensive valid and reliable assessment of students’ understandings of inquiry. The Views About Scientific Inquiry (VASI) was developed at IIT and we are now working with researchers all over the world (i.e., 18 countries) to get a baseline assessment of what seventh grade students understand about inquiry. This will lead to a better idea of how we can engage the next generation with the practices and processes of science – be it as future scientists or as citizens in a global society influenced by science and research.

*The host is a new series of blog posts, revealing the perspective and the work of the scientist hosting RESOLV students for an internship.  


About the author

Lederman

Norman G. Lederman is Distinguished Professor of Mathematics and Science Education at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He has a Ph.D. in Science Education from Syracuse University (1983); M.S. in Secondary Education from Bradley University (1977); M.S. in Biology from New York University (1973); B.S. in Biology from Bradley University (1971). He is internationally known for his work on students’ and teachers’ understandings of nature of science and scientific inquiry.

Ultrafast lasers will help us understand the matrix of life.

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Clara Saraceno

Born in Argentina, university studies in France, an experience in the industry in the US and a PhD in Switzerland: The 32 year old physicist Clara Saraceno has literally followed her passion for lasers around the world. Since June, the 2015 Sofja Kovalevskaja Award winner (a prize of the The Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation) has started a W2 tenure track professorship at RUB. In RESOLV she will build the ultrafast lasers that Martina Havenith (speaker of the cluster) will use to investigate the role of water in biological processes. Similar to the lasers she works with, Saraceno is a powerful and resolute scientist. Her driving force, as she tells us in this interview, is fun.

Q: RESOLV is essentially about understanding how water works and why is water the matrix of life. Why exploit lasers in the THz field to study water?

Water shows extremely strong absorption in the THz regime, hence we can apply light sources in that field to investigate water dynamics. For example this could help us follow how water behaves around a protein while the molecule is functioning, making reactions and so on.

Q: How do you want to study water dynamics?

In general, the more short laser pulses you have per second the more information per second you get. Hence, to study fast dynamics we need lasers that deliver very short pulses at very high repetition rate, which means reaching high average power.

Q: How simple is that?

That’s exactly the ongoing challenge in ultrafast laser research! There are several ways to do this: You could pump the power by amplifying a regular ultrafast oscillator output or you can aim for simple compact source by trying to push the oscillator itself. I actually prefer the second option: I could reach an average 275 W power with 600 femtoseconds pulse duration and 17 MHz repetition rate in the near infrared range – a record that I actually achieved in 2012. My challenge here at RUB is to use these sources and convert them into high-power sources into the 1-10 THz range: We would like to reach an average power close to 1 W and a repetition rate bigger than 1 MHz.

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The THz gap in the electromagnetic radiation spectrum © Martin Saraceno

Q: What are the main hurdles along the way and how can you overcome them?

Like for every high power, solid-state laser, we would need to minimize heat and maximize cooling, by choosing the right materials and the right geometry. The one geometry that I favor implies a gain medium, the main source of heat, shaped like a pancake. The disks that we use are just a few hundred microns thin, allowing for better dissipation of the heat and better-shaped short pulses.

Q: How do you cool down the discs?

The disks are actually glued on diamonds! They dissipate heat very well. We don’t use the pretty polished ones, just synthetic, but they are still expensive. The diamonds are then water-cooled.

Q: So much for hard science. What led you to work with lasers?

It was during my university studies on optics in France, there was this lecture on lasers technology. It was so cool! And then the school was offering an internship at Coherent, an American laser manufacturing company set in California. I thought: “Sunny California, for one year, lasers are cool, why not?”. But I applied too late.

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Inside of a laser © Clara Saraceno

I contact them anyway after my master for an engineer trainee, and they got me. There I learned everything about lasers and I really got the ultrafast laser bug. It was real fun!

Q: How did it happen that you then went back to academia?

I soon found out that in the laser industry you need a PhD to make interesting things. So I was looking for an opportunity and it happened that my ex boyfriend was in Europe and that my cubicle-colleague at Coherent knew Prof. Ursula Keller at ETH in Zurich, Switzerland. He suggested I should apply there. They wanted me, and I really had a great time in Zurich, it’s a fantastic group!

Q: You’ve mentioned it already three times, what do you mean with fun?

I really enjoy manipulating stuff, go to lab and turn knobs. I love making nice devices and lasers. And I really marvel at the German way of making good functioning devices based on sound engineering.

Q: And now you are here at RUB?

Again there were coincidences. Martina Havenith once came to Zurich to give a talk. In her last slide she said “we need to increase the resolution, we need more powerful sources”. And my boss, Keller, goes “take Clara, she is looking for a job!”. So I applied for the Kovalevskaja prize and here I am.

Q: How was moving from the green, mountain-rich Switzerland to the concrete-rich Bochum?

Switzerland is super-nice, but with a family and a small baby, my priority was to move forward in science. I’m impressed by the scientific excellence that I’ve found here. I think there’s really room for good collaborations and for my own activity to grow. And the environment is a nice too! If I look at the right side I see green hills.

Q: Who do you see yourself collaborating with?

A natural collaboration would be with Janne Savolainen. He knows a lot about the right ways to generate THz light. And here I come, with some of the most powerful ultrafast lasers in the world!

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Simplified scheme of the project idea: Disk (on diamond) generates near infrared pulse; conversion to THz pulse, which is used to study water molecules © Martin Saraceno

Q: What are your next steps at RUB? When will you do research on water?

First, we need to build up a lab, a good one. It will take around 6 months. Then I will start to tinker with laser to near the short pulses-high power in the THz domain. Soon, I would guess in some 18 month, we’ll do some experiments on water in parallel with the laser development.

Q: Becoming a professor at 32 is an outstanding achievement, especially for a woman, given the gender gap that still exists in science. What are your suggestions to young students and young women in science?

I always had so much fun with my work, so I would say: feel the passion! And don’t over think! If you see an opportunity give it a shot, what can you lose? Throw yourself in the pool, then things will work out.

Q: Clara, will we ever have the lightsabers of Star Wars?

Unfortunately laser swords make little sense physically. For the beam to suddenly ‘stop’ propagating, this would somehow imply that the laser beam is ‘trapped’ in a similar way to a resonator. However then, when something would intercept the beam the resonator would automatically stop, and the laser light would not be there anymore.


About the Author

EF3Emiliano Feresin is a science journalist, currently responsible for the outreach activities within the RESOLV cluster at RUB. Born and raised in Italy, he holds a Diploma and a PhD degree in chemistry. Driven by an innate curiosity for scientific stories, he completed his education with a master degree in science communication. Along the path he has written for outlets like Nature and Chemistry World and learned that the reader has always the last word.

Your odds of getting a job at Bayer HealthCare in Wuppertal

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Excursion team to Bayer HealthCare Wuppertal

On the 20th of April 2016 RESOLV organized a captivating excursion to Bayer HealthCare in Wuppertal. It was a great opportunity for us PhD students to get insider information about the many career possibilities and research areas in Bayer.

The trip began from Bochum with a bus transfer to the Bayer HealthCare (BHC) research center in Wuppertal, where Mr. Larsen Schnadhorst from the Communication department and Ms. Angelika Behling from the Human Resources welcomed us. Ms. Behling introduced Bayer to us: About 2,600 employees work in the Wuppertal site and half of them are employed in research; the site covers an area of 18 hectars and its focus revolves around the topics cardiology and oncology.

Behling also told us about the philosophy of Bayer and briefed us about how to apply for and what to expect from Bayer. Here came some interesting information for a PhD student! For example she told us about PhD-workshops organized in cooperation with Germany and USA: To take part in these workshops you have to fill an application on their web-page – If you get accepted, Bayer will cover the costs. There are also special graduate programs including international trainee Programs for chemists, engineers or computational scientists. Getting a Post-Doc position is almost a bet, but in case of acceptance you would get a three-year contract with a follow-up contract being likely. Concerning direct job applications, two routes can be taken: 1) It is possible to start as a head of laboratory in R&D with one or two technicians. 2) You can start a career in a manager-position, rotating between different places every few years. Jobs like patent attorney or business consultor are also possible alternatives.

After this presentation the lab-station visits began. At the ophthalmology laboratory we were shown the structure of a human eye and what kind of things could happen with your eyes – e.g. the retina – when getting older. We could see damaged eye cells of rats under a microscope and how rats with induced eye diseases are examined in order to develop drugs that could possibly help humans in a later stage.

At the medicinal chemistry department we saw how drugs are synthesized and investigated. It was at the newly found catalysis department that we discover how professionals can also come across with some technical problems sometimes leading to high amounts of expenses or even the abortion of the project. However, given a second chance in many cases the problem is solved.

At the cardiology department we got to know about the manufacturing of drugs against thrombosis or hypertension. Researchers use mice or rats to test the effects of the drugs and we were shown how they conduct animal experiments and what equipment they use. From explanatory videos we could see how thrombosis can be induced mechanically in living but anesthetized mice and how special drugs can prevent it.

After our six hour excursion we were tired but happy that we got so much first-hand information about a pharmaceutical company. Now it was time to get back to the Ruhr-University Bochum.


About the Author

yesimmuratYesim Murat, born 1987 in Schwäbisch Gmünd, has studied Chemistry at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and obtained her diploma in 2012. Since 2013, she works as a PhD student in the field of Synthesis and Characterization of Ceria-Zirconia Catalysts for the liquid-phase Dimethyl Carbonate Synthesis at the Fraunhofer Institute UMSICHT in Oberhausen (Germany) in the Catalytic Processes group of Dr. Stefan Kaluza. Prof. Dr. Martin Muhler is supervising the thesis on behalf of the Department of Technical Chemistry at the Ruhr University of Bochum.