High school physics students glimpse careers

A student catches sunlight with a scintillator.
A student catches sunlight with a scintillator.

Do you know what a scintillator is? Can you use scintillate in a sentence?

Thanks to scientists and technologists at NIU, 70 students from Libertyville’s AP physics classes can.

The students visited NIU’s Department of Physics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Mechanical Engineering labs in the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology May 12 to learn about science and engineering as part of NIU’s STEM Outreach initiative, which encourages students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

A scintillator is any material that displays luminescent properties when exposed to radiation such as sunlight.

Eric Johnson, high energy physics technician, talked to the students about proton therapy and demonstrated how the Northern Illinois Center for Accelerator and Detector Development (NICADD) uses scintillators in research to locate brain tumors. He gave each student a scintillator that glowed purplish blue in the sunlight.

The students also talked to Zhili Xiao, professor of materials science, who discussed NIU’s research with Toyota to create fuel leak sensors for hydrogen-powered cars.

Xiao was excited to see so many students interested in continuing their science education. “When you want to encourage economic development in a country,” Xiao said, “science is the way to do it.”

The Libertyville students shared their excitement when research scientist Stanislaw Kolesnik demonstrated how temperatures change the physical properties of materials.

Research scientist Stanislaw Kolesnik demonstrates the effects of liquid nitrogen on various materials.
Research scientist Stanislaw Kolesnik demonstrates the effects of liquid nitrogen on various materials.

Kolesnik brought out the canister of liquid nitrogen, held up a leafy office plant clipping, dipped it in the canister and dropped it.

The frozen stem drifted to the floor.  Its leaves shattered against the ground like delicate glass.  The students applauded and took pictures with their phones.

“One of the great things about working with high school juniors and seniors,” said physics department chair Laurence Lurio, “is that they have enough scientific background that they can understand how something works rather than just being impressed with the fact that it worked.”

Lurio said he sees NIU’s STEM Outreach as an important step in helping students move beyond their textbooks.  Spending time in labs, talking with real scientists and seeing real experiments being conducted shows students how they can become involved in science, he said.

David Grady, student diversity and recruitment specialist for the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology (CEET), faces a similar challenge in educating students on what engineering professionals actually do. “Engineering is invisible,” he said.

Grady said that students always think of doctors, police officers and firefighters as having the most important jobs, without realizing that the high-tech, life-saving equipment those glamorized professionals use is actually designed by engineers and created in labs like the ones the Libertyville students toured.

In addition to seeing science and engineering demonstrations on their tour, the Libertyville students also got a preview of the college experience.

Throughout the tour of the Engineering building, Grady emphasized the importance of maintaining a high GPA, seeking tutoring when necessary and participating in extracurricular activities such as NIU’s Motor Sports teams. These activities make students more attractive to employers.

Basic Utility VehicleIn the engineering labs, the students learned about the vehicles engineering students are building, such as the clean snowmobile, formula racing, human-powered, mini baja and Third World vehicles. One student turned excitedly to his friend and whispered, “They make cars here. Cars!”

The high-schoolers were especially impressed that the supermileage vehicle designed and constructed by NIU students achieves 1,265 miles per gallon. This was a jaw-dropping number for people who have just started paying for their own gasoline.

Omar Ghrayeb, associate dean of Outreach and Undergraduate Programs for CEET, said he sees visits like Libertyville’s as a way to increase awareness of STEM professions.

NIU is an ideal place for students to learn and grow because of the institution’s many partnerships with labs and businesses that are clamoring for well-prepared employees, Ghrayeb said.

The day Libertyville’s AP physics class visited NIU, Ghrayeb received e-mails from more than 20 companies seeking interns. The demand for STEM professionals is out there and is much greater than the number of students that NIU can currently supply.

To learn more about NIU’s STEM Outreach initiatives or to schedule a tour of NIU’s STEM departments and labs, contact Patricia Sievert, STEM Outreach coordinator, at (815) 753-1201 or psievert@niu.edu.

To schedule a tour of the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, contact David Grady at (815) 753-0745 or grady@niu.edu.

by Gillian King-Cargile

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