Friday, April 26, 2013

Looking a Little Closer

insect sample
Every now and then a great opportunity for learning comes along that has nothing to do with what we are currently studying. Sometimes we let those programs slip by and sometimes we throw our routine out the window for the day and explore that path. This week just such an opportunity became available. A member of our homeschooling Meetup group was approached by a professor at Bucknell University with an offer to bring the homeschoolers into the microscope lab for an afternoon. EM was not all that interested, but JT knew it would be right up his alley. Many times I take both boys to events that I think only one of them will find interesting just to see what happens. This time, I did choose to leave EM at home because I wasn't sure what level the material might cover and I didn't want him to get antsy if it was over his head.

cool bug
The professor running the program had five of his students set up at different learning stations. The homeschoolers were split up into groups and traveled around the lab. Our first stop was a short discussion on forensic science. We talked about DNA evidence and how it is used to solve crimes. From there we moved on to using a stereo microscope. The university student running this station had taken entomology the previous year and brought his insect collection for viewing. JT had opportunity to discuss his favorite subject while we checked out the bugs in detail.

creepy cat
The lab also had a fluorescence microscope station. There was a slide show of fluorescent animals running on a nearby computer while we were learning how the microscope worked. These animals had been treated with a dye, as opposed to the biogenetically engineered animals JT has been reading about in the book, Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts. JT launched into a discussion of the book and told the student he should check it out. We were able to see some pretty cool slides of organelles at that station. Another student then explained how a polarizing microscope worked and showed the kids slides of sugar, salt, and citric acid.

on my Christmas wish list
My pathetic manual microtome couldn't hold a candle to the instruments in this lab! The homeschoolers were able to slice samples and prepare slides for histology, both in the slower method using the microtome on the left, and also witnessed the preparation of a slide using the much faster frozen section procedure which is used most often during surgeries where cancer is being ruled out or diagnosed.

As a final treat, the professor had one of his students do a demonstration using liquid nitrogen. Although it wasn't directly related to microscopy, he told us it is always a 'crowd pleaser'. He was certainly right about that. The student poured a Styrofoam cup full of the liquid. Then he placed various objects in to show us what would happen. First he froze a few cherry tomatoes and threw them on the floor to smash into bits. He also froze a penny, a new one made mostly of zinc, and had a young boy smash and break it with a hammer. He poured more of the nitrogen into a large Styrofoam container so he could put a small inflated balloon in to watch it freeze and shrink. When he removed it from the liquid, it quickly re-inflated and he passed it around to the children. JT's favorite part of the demonstration was when a frozen banana was used to hammer a nail into a block of wood.

rock hard banana
The university students did an excellent job sharing some of the interesting things we can see when we take a closer look using tools in the lab. JT's desire to study science in college was renewed. He even suggested that I should get a job at the university now so he could go to school for less in a few years.

I'm hoping some doors have been opened that will allow us to visit the school again, either as homeschoolers or maybe in the future when JT has started on his way in the real world as a young adult.

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