Thanks to one parent’s generosity, students at a nearby high school had a rare chance to work with a $85,000 scanning electron microscope, which is at least 30 times more powerful than any microscope available in Frederick County’s public schools.
The microscope was loaned by a Gaithersburg-based division of Hitachi High Technologies America Inc., where parent Larry Cessna is the technical support supervisor for nanotechnology. He helped arrange the loan as part of Change the Equation, a nationwide educational organization of private-sector business leaders that aims to encourage more students to explore careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
Unlike most microscopes used in the school system, which show images in two dimensions and zoom in about 400 times, the electron microscope shows images in three dimensions and has the capacity to magnify them up to 30,000 times.
That means that a student can use the microscope not only to examine a spider’s leg, but also on the tiny hairs that grow from the hairs on the spider’s leg, said Walkersville senior Joey Williams.
“It is awesome!” said the 17-year-old, who spent hours with the microscope.
Joey, who hopes to study biology and environmental science at Salisbury University next year, has used the microscope to examine and take photos of many things, including the structure of mold on bread crumbs and the stomata, or the breathing organs, of leafs.
“This is the best opportunity for us,” said Joey, who was so excited about the microscope that he went to school on a Saturday.
Traditional microscopes use visible light to illuminate and magnify objects. An electron microscope uses electrons instead of regular light, which allows them to focus and zoom onto much smaller objects than optical microscopes.
Scanning microscopes are typically too expensive to be used and maintained at schools, said Walkersville High School science instructor Scott McIntosh, who teaches environmental science and biology.
“I never dreamed we’d be able to do this,” he said. “To me this is like playing with a mythical creature. It’s like riding a unicorn.”
Resembling a large desktop computer, the microscope has been installed in one of the school’s science classrooms, where students have been using it to view, photograph and catalogue various objects, including pieces of fiber, fingernails, tiny insects, feathers, mold and lichens, McIntosh said.
The electron microscope requires students to place the objects in a vacuum chamber and projects the images on a computer screen, where they can be easily photographed and catalogued.
The best part about that is students have been able to use the microscope to see in reality and large scale everything that they have been learning about in the classroom and from their textbooks, McIntosh said.
“This is something that has been in the kids’ hands all the time. That is the basis of exploration,” he said.