Americans agree that our students urgently need better science education.  The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Broader Impact now requires scientific research to benefit a wider audience than those receiving research funding and the corresponding academic discipline.  This is also supported in the Obama administration’s commitment to science education and the fostering of the next generation of scientists.  Clearly a crucial component to achieving this goal is to effectively train and motivate the next generation of science educators.

In the Winter of 2011, graduate students1 within many of the Superfund Research Program labs participated in an Environmental and Molecular Toxicology department seminar instructed by Jennifer Field to gain practical experience in creating engaging science curricula for middle school students.  Sandra Uesugi from the SRP Outreach Core, Naomi Hirsch from the SRP Research Translation Core, and Jay Well from the SMILE program at OSU, served as mentors. The Environmental Health Sciences Center (EHSC) provided funds for materials and time of Jay Well (NIEHS grant #P30 ES000210).

The SMILE program is an after school club program that serves rural, minority, and underserved communities throughout Oregon and has a long-standing partnership with the EHSC Community Outreach and Engagement Core (COEC).  Through this course, EMT graduate students were exposed to a wide variety of outreach methods used by the SMILE and EHSC COEC and the collective experience and mentoring of Uesugi, Well, and Hirsch.

Using the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill as a context for the outreach activity, the graduate students created three hands-on activities to teach the concepts of mass, chemical separation, analytical chemistry, and data analysis.  The graduate students piloted their activities with middle school students during two SMILE Challenge events in Spring 2011. Approximately 120 middle school students participated in the mass spectrometry outreach activities.  Additionally, the middle school students were able to meet “real scientists” and have conversations with the graduate students about their research projects, some of which were currently doing research related to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Activity Descriptions and Teacher Information

  • Introduction and Talking Points (pdf)
  • Chemical Conundrum (pdf)
    Mass is a measurement that may be used to separate individual chemicals out of a complex mixture. In this activity, students explore different methods of separating out a complex mixture, and explore the difference between mass and weight.Incorporating M & Ms makes it fun for the students while they learn about physical and chemical properties of matter.The activity relates to Oregon Science Standards 6.1P.1 and 7.1P.1
  • A Picture is Worth a Thousand Data Points (pdf)
    Data generated during scientific experiments is commonly and effectively represented in the form of a graph or figure. In this exercise students explore how to convert data to graphs and figures. The activity relates to Oregon Science Standard 7.3S.2.
  • Life Size Demonstration of a Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometer (pdf)
    Students take on different roles: Timers, Graphers, and Launchers.Four different sized balls are launched and then measured for time and distance. Looking at the graph of arrival time of previous balls, students figure out where the unknown fits on the calibration curve. Students enjoy the hands-on launching, use of stop-watches, and graphing while they learn key concepts.
Mass Spec Activity Using M & M candy
Sorting M & M candy by
various characteristics
Balls of Various Weight
Balls of Various Weight
Jennifer Field with Middle School Students
Ball Launching

Resources for Middle School Students

Gravity Mass
  • Cell Size and Scale
    How small is a carbon atom compared to a grain of rice, grain of salt or a human egg? Thinking about these questions will introduce you to the concept of scale; an important topic that will help you understand why scientists may decide to use a mass spectrometer. Use the following link for a demonstration on size and scale. Use the slider at the bottom of the picture to unveil things that we can’t see with our naked eyes
Cell Size and Scale
Visible Oil in the Gulf

Visible oil

Oil on Shrimp?

Oil that may be hard to see

Mass Spec Instrument

A mass spectrometer used in a research lab

1 - Credit to the following graduate students for their work on these activities: Sarah Allan,Will Backe, Alex Brewer, Norman Forsberg, Phil Janney, Erin Madeen, Oleksii Motorykin, Steven O'Connell, Ben Place, Diana Rohlman, Federico Sinche Chele, Lane Tidwell, George Tuttle, Christopher Walsh