• Jill Sewell's participation in the Center for Materials Science and Engineering at MIT summer Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program led to taking on the high school-focused Lambda Project for Chemistry Professor Keith A. Nelson.


    PHOTO: Center for Materials Science and Engineering

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  • In the lab for the Lambda Project are (from left) Swampscott High students Haeree Park and Tori Thistle, and Saugus High students Bianca Rosato and Michaela Lovett.


    PHOTO: Jeffrey K. Eliason

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  • Lambda Project Lab Manager Jill Sewell (far right) with students (from left) Andrew James, Kenny Li, Alexa Beatrice, and Noah Gopen in the spectroscopy lab at MIT.

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  • Chemistry graduate student Jeffrey K. Eliason (standing, at back) with Swampscott High School students (from left), Andrew James, Kenny Li, Noah Gopen, and Alexa Beatrice in the lab for Lambda Project work.

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Introducing high school students to laser spectroscopy

Jill Sewell shepherds the Lambda Project in Professor Keith A. Nelson's lab.


Swampscott High School chemistry and physics teacher Jill Sewell turned a summer learning opportunity at MIT into a second job as a lab manager for Professor Keith Nelson's Lambda Project for high school students. "I feel blessed to have this come my way," Sewell says.

It started with her participation in the summer Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program sponsored by the Center for Materials Science and Engineering at MIT. Sewell joined Nelson's lab for the RET, and he asked her to take on the Lambda Project. Sewell is the third lab manager for the Lambda Project, which began in 2004. The student projects are based on thermal and acoustic measurements that the Nelson lab has pioneered for analyzing heat transport in silicon and gallium arsenide. (See related article).

Over two years, Sewell has shepherded three groups of students from Swampscott and Saugus through the program, which lasts for three days on campus during April and summer vacations.
For Sewell, who worked in industry before becoming a high school science teacher, the MIT experience is also a challenge beyond her everyday work, offering a glimpse of the newest technology.

She developed an application process for the program, requiring students to explain why it is important to them and what they envision for their future. "I really only want to start with the kids who are excited to be there,” Sewell says. “They aren't only the kids in the honors classes."

Sewell mostly selects students in their junior year who have completed physics, so that they come to the Lambda Project with a basic understanding of wave patterns and properties of light. Hands-on work with lasers is a step up from the standard Massachusetts high school physics curriculum.

Developing career awareness

Says Bianca Rosato, a Saugus High School junior who participated in the Lambda Project in August 2013: "The experience was interesting, to say the least. It really opened my eyes to the incredible technology and education available at MIT. The advancements being made every day are truly amazing." Rosato and her lab partner are preparing a presentation for a science fair at Swampscott High School this month.

Rosato hopes to attend Boston College for premedical studies, then attend medical school and work at Children's Hospital in Boston. After her Lambda Project experience, she says, "I have a greater awareness of the career I'd like to specialize in after college. In addition, I feel like I have a stronger grip on my strengths and weaknesses within the scientific field."

Waves, nanometers, and picoseconds

The Lambda Project offers students hands-on experience in MIT labs. "There is a sound wave, and there is thermal expansion, and students measure it," Nelson says. In MIT chemistry undergraduate labs, the students get to deposit a metal film on the sample. "It's high school kids, so they've never seen that sort of thing before,” Nelson says. “They get to see a little bit of materials fabrication, and then they get to see a little bit of advanced materials characterization by measuring these sound waves and thermal transport and things like this. They're crossing light waves and looking at interference patterns and diffracting waves off them.”

Students also learn about nanometer and micron length scales and picosecond and nanosecond time scales. "For a high school student, what these length and time scales are, and what sorts of things happen or are built on those time scales or length scales, are new,” Nelson says. “There is a lot of basic learning through exposure to things they are not normally seeing."

"Students get in there and mess with the beams — they get to tweak an optical mount that steers the light beam around, which is also a learning experience," Nelson says. "They say, 'Oh, wow, it's really sensitive; I hardly move it at all and the beam moves.' So they just get this sense of how I might be able to really execute something in a lab that is pretty sensitive, but yes it's doable, and they get to play with and see the signal and see the interference patterns and so forth."

Fourth-year chemistry graduate student Jeffrey Eliason introduces the high school students to the lab, makes sure they understand the equipment, and demonstrates how to take measurements. The students also visit a lab where Eliason deposits metal on thin film, usually copper or silver onto silicon wafer, and observe that process. On their third day, the students run tests on the films and record their data, and Eliason teaches them how to analyze the data.

Presenting results

Sewell requires students to submit a written report or slide presentation for their work that they can share with their high school classmates. This year, they will also participate in Swampscott High School's Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Night, a popular event drawing up to 300 attendees.

"What I want to do is set up the MIT Lambda research," Sewell says, envisioning LEDs with mirrors and lenses so the Lambda participants can show what they did at MIT but without the high-power laser. "The whole idea is to show families and the community what we are doing here, but also to give them a hands-on experience."

Sewell hopes to include some Cambridge high school students in future groups.


Topics: Materials science, Materials Processing Center, Center for Materials Science and Engineering, Silicon, Spectroscopy, Students

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