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Small Technologies, Big Potential

Small Technologies, Big PotentialAssistant Professor Charles Sykes and his graduate students are working with high school students to build interest in the sciences.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.19.09] To most outside of the discipline, scientific journals are not popular reading material.

"We do kind of hardcore fundamental research and publish papers on it, but the impact of that is only as big as the number of people who read it," says Usen Family Career Development Assistant Professor of Chemistry Charles Sykes.

Wanting to expand their research beyond their basement lab in the Pearson Chemistry Building and the School of Arts and Sciences community, Sykes and his graduate students have teamed up with Tufts graduate Roger Winn to allow high school students to share in the thrill of discovery.

Thanks to a five-year CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, Sykes and his students have been able to share their exploration of nanotechnology with the students in Winn's chemistry class at the Social Justice Academy in Boston.

"Boston public students are often on the wrong end of the technology gap," Winn says. "So this allows our students to see current and cutting edge technology that would not otherwise be available to them."

"I think if you get people at the right stage in their career to become interested in something like science, you can possibly change their path," says Sykes, who in 2008 was named a Beckman Young Investigator and a Cottrell Scholar of Research Corporation. "This is why high school students are a good target audience. I think it's an exciting time during which you can motivate them and make a difference."

In the lab, Sykes and his students aim to understand how atoms and molecules interact with surfaces, and build novel nanoscale structures by controlling these interactions.


Winn, who received his M.A.T. in education from Tufts in 2008, had previously worked with Sykes in the chemistry department while he was still in school. When Sykes began thinking of ways to bridge the information gap, Winn seemed like the perfect connection to make that happen.

"Part of what I like about Tufts is that even though I have moved to working outside of the university, I can still use the connections I have made there to help better what I do in the classroom and give the students a better education in chemistry," Winn says.

Sykes and his graduate students have made two trips out to the Social Justice Academy with a portable scanning tunneling microscope (STM) and have hosted some of Winn's students on the Medford/Somerville campus to see their two larger STMs, which use electricity instead of light to make it possible to see things as small as individual atoms.

"They already have knowledge of atoms and molecules, so we use that and show them that they already know a little bit about nanoscience and nanotechnology," Sykes says. "We do demonstrations where they take a piece of graphite from a pencil and show them the individual carbon atoms."

Sykes adds, "It is really trying to take what they already know and show them different aspects and applications, ultimately getting them excited and potentially consider studying science in college."

Erin Iski (G'10) has been working with Sykes on this project since their first trip to the Social Justice Academy last year, and she helped facilitate this year's visit to the class with fellow student April Jewell (G'12) on April 15, where they gave a presentation and a demonstration. Visits are always followed up with a survey to gauge the students' reactions to the experience.

Charles Sykes, April Jewell and Erin Iski

"Afterward their teacher gave them a quiz and we were reading over them and you could see that they absorbed the information," Jewell says. "They explained their answers like they were explaining it to someone else and it was clear that they hadn't just repeated what we had said but were using their own words to describe what things meant. Watching someone learn something new and just being a part of teaching them is pretty exciting."

"Day in and day out we're working in a lab doing research, which is great, but at the end of the day you think, 'What does this mean?'" says Iski. "I find it rewarding to be able to communicate with another person and see that they're understanding, and maybe for a couple of them it will make them want to do science or think of science differently."

Jewell noted that the high school students were most interested in how nanoscience affects their day-to-day life, showing great enthusiasm when learning how an iPod works.

A week after their visit to the school, nine students then came to Tufts to get the "graduate student experience," attending a chemistry lecture, having lunch at the student center and assisting graduate students doing research in the lab.

"When they visited, I was encouraged to see how engaged they were," Jewell says. "It was also encouraging to see that out of the nine students, seven were women."

In addition to their day on campus, five students will get to spend a week in Sykes' lab this summer along with Winn, who will be working with graduate and undergraduate researchers to develop lab experiments and projects that can be modified to fit into a high school curriculum.


Aside from their work with high school students, Sykes says his lab has worked on other projects to get the general public interested in their work, including a YouTube video on using nanotechnology for alternative energy sources.

Sykes says these efforts have had a positive effect not only on the students of the Social Justice Academy, but his graduate students as well.

"A lot of grad students go to grad school and don't come out of the lab for five or six years and when they are done they haven't done anything else aside from research and getting their thesis written," Sykes says. "I think this gives my grad students a perspective on what they're doing, and why it's important for the overall bigger picture as opposed to just keeping your advisor happy and then graduating."

By Kaitlin Provencher, Web Communications.
Photos by Joanie Tobin, University Photography.


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