The truth is out there…

It’s not often that you find yourself unwittingly on a movie or TV set, but that’s where I accidentally found myself after a fantastic meeting with Dr Elaine Humphrey of the University of Victoria and a number of her colleagues from her department and wider university community.

Apparently one of the x-files episodes was filmed with some electron microscopy images on the wall, all from Dr Humphrey’s lab in the engineering department, she also had a slot on Discovery channel Canada where electron microscopy was a feature in a show called “small wonders” – always nice to see EM images in the public domain, although I suppose some of the most famous SEM images may have been aliens after all*.

More on the microscopy later…

The meeting was an open discussion about STEM outreach from the point of view of the university provider and effectively the people who ‘hold the keys’ to the opportunities and equipment. Dr. Lyle Robinson; VICTA program, Melisa Yestrau; Science Venture Program UVic, David Leeming; Math Mania and George Beer; Science Olympics Program. The links provide further information on their particular specialisms but I just wanted to blog about a few comments that have been food for thought for me.

Dr Humphrey has borrowed the Hitachi table top SEM on a number of occasions for a variety of outreach events. Excitingly she was a British Columbia scientist in residence – this is a wonderful project that combines so many of the things I have talked about in my previous blogs. In fact, she’s the perfect person to talk to when it comes to different models of STEM outreach – from internships to single afternoon tasters and for different age groups. What was striking was the importance of encouraging school children to learn techniques for themselves and use the equipment. Over a number of iterations the STEM outreach at the University of Victoria has moved from a ‘summer camp’ of activities for high school students (which had some success) to getting high school students embedded with research groups and then creating activities and curriculum to then teach younger students. Since the events and activities are always developing they continually learn the best approach, and, maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising, activities where children are given responsibility, access to real equipment and realistic problems to solve are the ones that are developed further. The table top SEM is straightforward to use for an experienced SEM user as they know what controls they are looking for – it may be surprising to see that high school students, and younger users can get to grips with the controls and image acquisition without necessarily understanding the underlying physics – of course, that’s where there is opportunity for further questions and investigation. At a recent event, each small group of 8th grade (year 9) students had an SEM operator, who was in charge not only of image acquisition but also training others in the group and explaining the equipment as part of their presentation. Again, I heard the anecdotes of participants who are now doing a PhD in microscopy or having been on the course turned their goals to an engineering degree program.

An interesting conversation followed regarding funding and the targeting of STEM events. Too long a story to provide details here, but it seems that similar funding requirements (or restrictions) lead to remarkable (possibly unintentional) consequences. As I have found throughout my travels the idea of empowering students, giving them longer term access or exposure to ‘real’ or ‘current’ science through internships, use of equipment, collaborations etc. is more stimulating than the one day or one afternoon event (as great as that event may be.) However, the level of resources per student necessarily increases – so far so obvious. However, it seems that the people with the money are often looking for simple numbers and demographics when it comes to targeting outreach projects. The greater the number, the more restricted and time-limited the activity becomes and risks being ‘pared down’ (I have mentioned ‘versions’ of experiments, or simulations etc. before.) The anecdotes regarding activities that have allowed a greater depth of experience or length of time involved with equipment, researchers or even a school project (for example the cosmic ray detectors of the VICTA project) seem to suggest genuine direction-change for students. It is inherently difficult to track, but Melisa Yestrau is following a similar approach to Nancy Healy at NNCO, Linda Rosen at Change the equation and Meghan Strazicich at Los Altos – use of social media to find destinations of past participants of projects and track their career progression. Now, this is understandably an incomplete dataset and further questioning is needed (plus comparative studies with those in similar circumstances who didn’t have the opportunity for such activities), however it may support the many anecdotes that are quoted.

Finally, something that I have briefly mentioned before is the confidence of non-specialist teachers and things that could be done to help. Math Mania is an organisation that runs activities in elementary schools involving simple maths games. Gamification can be a good way of getting children to question and probe ideas and engage them with maths and science. An interesting element of what David Leeming said was about the age of the mentors at the activities. He is convinced that an outreach or engagement activity is more effective when the person teaching is closer in age to the participants. I can certainly see this and peer to peer teaching and learning is on the rise.

There was plenty more discussed and it will be useful to add some of the comments into my report but for now, thanks to everyone at the meeting who were overflowing with enthusiasm for science and engineering and hence are actively involved in outreach events with the university because they feel it is the right thing to do!

Electron microscopy is often found in the basement of university departments...

Electron microscopy is often found in the basement of university departments…

The Hitachi HV3300 at the University of Victoria, Canada.

The Hitachi HF3300V at the University of Victoria, Canada.

Anorak time…Another engineering lab and another super set of electron microscopes to visit –this time the almost brand new Hitachi HF3300V…now, I thought my old microscope at Imperial College London was complicated, but this thing goes the extra mile.

This combined TEM/STEM is dual aberration corrected and has four (yes, four!?!?!) bi-prisms for electron holography and electron vortex beam manipulation (I probably got the name wrong and I really need to do some reading to find out more – I’m not sure this technique existed when I was a post-doc!) – if you’re keen and have access, have a look here & here…Somewhat closer to home – Dr Humphrey had a keen student, James Tyrwhitt-Drake who she taught to run one of the SEMs and he eventually produced a number of animated gifs, one of which went viral – these are fantastic movies that really enhance the information that scanning electron microscopes output.

*found not to be the case, but naturally occurring mineralisation…



2 Responses so far...

  1. Tom Weller says:

    “looking for simple numbers and demographics when it comes to targeting outreach projects”

    We need to find the numbers that matter; or decide they are only one part of our decision making algorithm. How do we show the value of depth when Brian Cox may be enough to drive someone to a science GCSE? I think we need to find metrics beyond [subject studied], [exam success] and [getting into university]. Positive world view; understanding of science; information literacy; question generation; investigation structuring. These and more might supply us with useful metrics. Anyone going this way out there?

    • Steve says:


      Just what IRIS is looking to do with our ACCCCE measures – Aspiration, Collaboration, Confidence, Contribution, Continuation and Enjoyment – look beyond the grades and the subjects to the longer term interest in a subject, and developing the wider skills, and of course looking to have fun doing it.


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