Researchers and teachers find common ground in Princeton labs

Aug. 17, 2006 11:38 a.m.
Steve Whittington in PRISM lab

At left: Michael Ireland, a physics and precalculus teacher at Perkiomen School in Pennsburg, Pa., spent the summer collaborating with assistant professor of chemistry Stefan Bernhard. Bernhard's goal is to create an environmentally clean and completely renewable way of using sunlight to produce hydrogen. Here, Ireland measured the amount of hydrogen gas created using a pressure sensor he invented. He also invented a very inexpensive oxygen sensor that currently is being used in Bernhard's lab.

Deborah Cretsinger in PRISM lab

Three area high school teachers have been working side-by-side with Princeton scientists this summer investigating solutions to the world's energy problems.

For eight weeks they have been part of a program called Research Experience for Teachers. The program's main thrust is to give teachers real-life lab experience that will inspire and inform their teaching when they return to their high school classrooms in the fall. But by all accounts the lab researchers have learned as much from the teachers as the teachers have learned from the researchers. In one case, a teacher invented a device that reduces the cost of an important piece of lab equipment from $60,000 to $30.

Michael Ireland, who teaches physics and precalculus at Perkiomen School in Pennsburg, Pa., has been commuting an hour and a half every morning to work in the laboratory of assistant chemistry professor Stefan Bernhard. Bernhard's lab is trying to use sunlight to coax hydrogen out of water cheaply and abundantly enough so that it might one day replace fossil fuels as a source of energy.

Michael Ireland in PRISM lab

Working in Bernhard's lab, both this summer and last summer, Ireland said he has learned a tremendous amount about how real research is done -- for example, he has learned the importance of communication and collaborative problem solving among lab partners.

But Ireland also has made enormous contributions to Bernhard's lab, chiefly in the form of an oxygen sensor that can measure quickly and reliably how much oxygen has been released from water.

Ireland built his sensor using a semiconductor chip from Texas Instruments, off-the-shelf parts from RadioShack and a small block of aluminum, which he hand-machined.

Ireland's sensor takes measurements just as sensitively and nimbly as the commercially manufactured sensor in the lab.

"Basically I took a bunch of big expensive equipment and made it a lot more portable," said Ireland.

He also made it very cheaply. Total cost of the lab sensor: $60,000. Total cost of Ireland's: $30.
"His background enabled him to do things we were unable to do," said Bernhard, whose team uses Ireland's oxygen sensor on a regular basis. This summer Ireland has been developing a hydrogen sensor as well.

Also participating this summer in the Research Experience for Teachers are Deborah Cretsinger, who teaches chemistry at East Brunswick (N.J.) High School, and Steve Whittington, who teaches chemistry at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, N.J. The outreach program is sponsored by the Princeton Center for Complex Materials, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, and the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials.

While Ireland has been working on creating hydrogen as a fuel, Cretsinger and Whittington have been in the labs of two professors -- Jay Benziger in chemical engineering and Andrew Bocarsly in chemistry -- who are collaborating to develop fuel cells that reliably and efficiently convert hydrogen or other alternative fuels into electricity.

"Fuel cells have been around for a long time and you can easily build one," Benziger said. "The problem is that they are fickle."

Benziger has had Cretsinger explore the elastic properties of the polymer nafion, which acts as a membrane for the fuel cells developed by Benziger and Bocarsly.

For her research this summer, Cretsinger has created a lab project for her own students, which involves clamping a weight onto the bottom of dog-bone shaped pieces of the transluscent nafion and seeing how long they take to stretch under different conditions.

"Kids want to know how the chemistry I am teaching them applies to real-life situations," said Cretsinger, "They are particularly interested in alternative fuels, so this is a great way to get their attention."
Meanwhile in Bocarsly's lab, Whittington has been adding small particles -- titanium oxide nanotubes -- to the nafion in an effort to make it act as a more efficient membrane. This fall Whittington will take back to his students a demonstration fuel cell that he assembled in Bocarsly's lab. It is a re-creation of the very first fuel cell, invented by Sir William Robert Grove in 1839.

Bocarsly has long understood the benefits of working with teachers. He is former co-director of Partners in Science, a program that preceded the Research Experience for Teachers.

"The idea of integrating high school teachers into a real research group doing cutting edge science has worked exceptionally well," said Bocarsly. "There are real, demonstrable benefits."

A study several years ago by Jay Dubner of Columbia University, also a co-director of Partners in Science, found that the test scores for students whose teachers participated in summer lab programs were significantly higher than scores of students whose teachers had not.

Daniel Steinberg, director of educational outreach for the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials, said that this summer's program was unusual in that all of the teachers were working on projects so closely related to the field of hydrogen energy, giving them a lot of common ground. "I scheduled a lot of lunch meetings so that the teachers could talk together about their research experiences and exchange ideas for new teaching strategies," he said. "They weren't just trading war stories. They learned a lot from one another."

Program participants receive a weekly stipend to make it easier for them to forego other summer work. Pending continued funding, organizers will begin reviewing applications from teachers for next summer's program in January.