A NanoFab-ulous Field Trip

By Rachel Wilmans and Maria Grau
Senior Editor and Staff Reporter

On March 11, PVI students enrolled in AP Physics had the opportunity to visit the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Students toured NanoFab, the nanotechnology fabrication branch of the institution, and attended talks given by high-level scientists at NIST on topics ranging from how to get into science as a career, to atomic clocks.

It’s rare for a PVI science class to sponsor a field trip, and students found the experience both enjoyable and informative.

Throughout the day, groups of PVI students rotated from scientist-led lectures to observation sessions, to a tour of the expansive facility. The lectures touched on more than just science; they also explored the economics of nanomanufacturing and the step-by-step process that one scientist took to get to her current position at NIST.

Rachel Burkhardt ‘16, like many students on the trip, found the lectures interesting but also very advanced for a high school physics student.

“NIST was really cool to visit yet very confusing!” She said. “One moment I was like, ‘Wow, cool. I never thought of that before!’ And the next I am like, ‘What is this wizardry they speak of?’”

In between talks, groups of students were able to see advanced nanotechnology tools firsthand. For instance, the Focused Ion Beam (FIB) combined with a scanning electron microscope (SEM) allows scientists to analyze the elemental makeup of a given object. When a dime was scanned by the FIB, students were able to see that the coin was in fact made of nickel, just using the technology.

The FIB/SEM combination also allows for high-resolution imaging on extremely small objects. One group was able to see a metal-plated insect with the high-powered microscope, enabling the PVI students to see everything down to the facets of the bug’s eyes and the hairs on its legs.


Photo of FIB/SEM microscopes captured from NIST-CNST digital brochure

“The metal-plated bug was a perfect example of an integration of physics into biology. It also showed how all sciences are connected one way or another and that they are all interdependent on each other. As a bio nerd who loves flies, especially Drosophila Melanogaster [common fruit fly], I hope to use this machine in my future research,” said Becca Kim ‘16.

Another highlight included a different FIB microscope that uses lithium ions. The scientists at NIST have found a way to harness these ions, supercooling them incredibly quickly, then using lasers to direct the ion beam at the target, which is an advanced technique.

Students also had the opportunity to see clean rooms, where the NIST scientists handle dangerous chemicals and wear white “bunny suits” to protect the sterility of the environment that they work in. These clean rooms have holes in the floors to keep special, pressurized air flowing through the environment, keeping it pure. The students had to opportunity to see various clean rooms in which wafers of tiny integrated circuits are made through the processes of etching and layering with “shadow masks.”

For scientifically-minded PVI students, the NIST experience does not have to stop after the field trip. Current seniors going to college next year can apply for the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, which allows undergraduate students to spend weeks doing research at the NIST facility, and rising juniors and seniors can apply for the Summer High School Internship Program (SHIP) to volunteer to help with research and get a feel for high-level science.

According to Caitlin Kwalwasser ‘16, overall, “We had a very NIST time.”

Disclaimer: Rachel Wilmans and Maria Grau attended the March 11 field trip to NIST.

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