Limitless Curiosity

Students View Science Up Close With Electron Microscope

Fifth-graders Charlotte Bell and Sarah Haywood marvel at what they’ve seen in recent days through the digital lens and desktop computer screen of a donated scanning electron microscope, or Hitachi TM3030 Electron Microscope.

The electron microscope is being loaned out this year for student use to nine Spring Branch ISD campuses, starting with Charlotte and Sarah’s micro-school site, Spring Branch Academic Institute, which is housed on the second floor at Valley Oaks Elementary School.

This electron microscope is similar to an optical microscope, but it generates very high-resolution images by using electrons instead of light. Since the wavelength of electrons is much smaller than a wavelength of light, higher resolutions are possible. 

Such microscopes can be found in few public schools and – quite rarely – in an elementary-level school or classroom. Hitachi picks schools and districts for equipment loans in the United States. The highly gifted campus at Valley Oaks is reportedly the only elementary in Texas to be provided use of such an electron microscope. 

The Spring Branch Academic Institute now serves students at two SBISD campus locations who have been identified as very highly gifted in one or more areas. Younger students attend Valley Oaks Elementary; a secondary site based at Stratford High School now serves middle and high school-age students. The institute enrolls 96 students in all this year.

Like their classmates, Charlotte and Sarah have been instructed in preparing data samples, making observations, analyzing data and making many of their own decisions. On this day, they were looking at red-colored sugar through the advanced microscope.

“It looks like diamonds!” exclaims Charlotte as they focus in, and focus in, and then focus in even more, stopping at magnification 30,000 times normal viewing, Sarah explains.

“You really learn about things up close with this microscope. The object might look smooth when you hold it in your hand, but then it’s rough and rugged up close,” she says. “I appreciate using the electron microscope. Most students don’t get to ever use one.” 

View related microscope images and student comments

The Hitachi TM3030 appears small, about the size of a computer tower, but contains all the incredible power of a scanning electron microscope. Such microscopes are used in just about every facet of manufacturing worldwide today, and support science research and discovery.

Patrick Marks, Hitachi product manager for desktop microscopes, spoke about the need for high technology science equipment in a promotional video for the device being used at St. Mark’s School, London, one of that city’s most exclusive private schools. Hitachi has a similar microscope in that British school.

“It’s important that we take Hitachi’s advanced technologies out and into the education arena, getting people involved in science, getting people involved in manufacturing for a brighter future,” he said.

“My students have loved having the microscope just as much as I have,” Spring Branch Academic Institute teacher Kayman McIver said. “It is set up such that they can explore and try things out on their own. This allows me the freedom to question them about what they are seeing and to challenge them to ask higher-level questions about what they see.”

Charlotte and Sarah, and their classmates, brought in specimens that interested them. These included bugs and insects, common school supplies, and local plants. They also examined things that appear rather similar in “real” life, but are quite different under the microscope. They compared sugar and salt and a human eyelash and eyebrow, for example.

McIver trained her students in proper microscope use and sample preparation, and then turned them loose using a cross-curriculum model for their experiences. Math skills were used to understand magnification and scale. Students researched famous scientists who used microscopes in their work and discoveries. McIver said that students even looked at pointillism art using small strokes or dots and how it compares to how an electron microscope works. 

“Our students are highly gifted in a variety of areas, and they all love some aspect of science,” McIver said. “These students love new experiences and challenges, and they respond well to independent exploration that relates to the real world. This microscope has brought all these things together in our classroom.”

In addition to the two campuses for the highly gifted, the Hitachi TM3030 Electron Microscope will travel through the district next semester making stops in the secondary science classrooms at seven campuses.

The campuses include Northbrook, Spring Woods and Stratford high schools, and Northbrook, Spring Woods, Spring Oaks and Landrum middle schools. Teachers received training in the use and application of the special Hitachi microscope earlier.

SBISD Science Director Donald Burken and Science Instructional Lead Ro Luecken helped secure the Hitachi microscope loan.

“Ro and Donald deserve big accolades for bringing this to our district and opening up the opportunity to benefit from it to our youngest students,” McIver said. “I expect that many of these same children will pursue careers in science and engineering. Allowing them to begin using this type of technology is just one way that we can give them all an educational advantage.”

“I can only imagine the look on a college professor’s face in 15 years when one of my students tells them that they first used a scanning electron microscope when they were 6 years old.”

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