Lodi High School students in Melissa Turner’s science classes are members of a select few who have been given the opportunity to use equipment rarely seen in the classroom.
This week, Turner’s students have been using a scanning electron microscope provided by Aptos-based Left Coast Instruments, giving them a first-hand look at a process used by many in the science field to find nearly invisible pieces of information in a variety of objects.
Turner said the microscope was provided through a grant developed by Left Coast Instruments that includes education. She said Chief Executive Officer Nancy Weavers has taken the microscope all over the country, bringing the equipment to Lodi High School on Monday.
Her students will be able to use the machine until Friday, when Left Coast Instruments returns to pack it up and deliver it to Los Altos High School in the Bay Area next week.
Weavers said the machine, built by Hitachi, can be requested by any high school in the country. Calling the microscope “the world’s best toy,” Weavers said bringing the equipment to high schools is part of Hitachi’s mandate to educate.
“It’s to get kids turned on to science by letting them use technology actually used in labs all over the world,” she said. “It just makes sense to expose kids to things they’d be doing if they were interested in stem cell education.”
Turner said this week has been her first experience with such a microscope, which at first glance looks like the tower of a large desktop computer.
The user places a specimen into a tray near the bottom of the scanning unit. The scope will then send electrons from a processor in the top of the unit down toward the specimen, where they interact with the specimen’s atoms. Magnets within the microscope then project an image on a computer screen nearby.
The user will then see a detailed, magnified image of the specimen in the tray, showing details not visible to the naked eye. Using a standard computer mouse, users can enlarge, adjust or move the image on screen.
Turner said this type of microscope, which can be as much as 30 times more powerful than a standard light microscope, is currently being used in scientific fields such as stem cell research and forensics.
She said her students have been very excited about using the machine, which she added was designed for use in high schools across Japan and China. Turner said it’s disappointing that scanning electron microscopes are not being used in American classrooms.
“I think (the country’s) work on stem cell research is so far behind compared to Japan and China,” she said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for kids to use a piece of equipment like this in the classroom.”
Turner said scanning electron microscopes are currently being used in San Joaquin Delta College’s science department, which at one time offered laboratory tours to local high school classes. The tours were aimed at bringing more students into the college’s science program, but when enough students enrolled, the tours were ultimately discontinued, she said.
Besides creating a magnified, detailed image of a specimen, the microscope can actually determine how much of a certain element exists in the test object.
Freshman Sam Ellison brought a very tiny piece of fertilizer to Turner’s Preparatory AP class Wednesday. His father, an agronomist, wanted to see if the machine could determine what materials the fertilizer contained.
They were almost certain it was made of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, but also wanted to check for other elements.
“I just wanted to find out what it was made of and get a larger magnification,” Ellison said, adding that it wasn’t as difficult to use the microscope as it looked. “I thought it was really cool. I had looked at (the fertilizer) on a regular microscope, and it was just a white circle. I put it in this microscope, and I got to see all the contours and details of that tiny little piece.”
Other students, like freshmen Matthew Orgon and Jake Gillespie and sophomore Colin Porter, brought a spider’s head to examine.
After placing it in the microscope and enlarging the on-screen image, the boys were able to examine the spider’s eyes.
Orgon said it was a great experience to see the projected image on screen.
“It was kind of hard using the microscope,” he said. “We weren’t really familiar with it and were trying to be gentle, because it’s very expensive.”
Turner said the microscope costs about $73,000. She said she thinks a machine like this in high schools could help students further their education.
“I think this might actually help a student want to get into college to study science,” she said.
Weavers said that while the microscope has been designed for use by high school students in Japan, part of Hitachi’s mandate is to support the system in high schools, middle schools and colleges across the country. She said equipment like this could one day be used in several high schools, and some have even applied for grants, including Los Altos.
“I think that kids think science can be very boring and dry,” she said. “But it can be fun. And I think this microscope can open their eyes to just how amazing and important science is.”