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Project iLASER is an endeavor to celebrate the International Year of Chemistry, supported by a generous grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation (grant no. CHE 1118663).

Don't miss any of the content of this blog. Follow the links in the
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It is probably best to read the posts in chronological order, beginning with the May 2011 entry.

Also, click on the images found herein to see them in full size.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Grand Time in the Rio Grande Valley!

Yeah, that's me, proudly wearing my Jefferson Elementary Tigers shirt, doing my best to learn the Tiger Dance (in front of hundreds of really bright students from Jefferson Elementary).
What can I say but: "Wow!"? I left El Paso back on October 1 and now find myself back in El Paso once again --- nine days of time, 1,800 miles of journey and hundreds of smiles from young Rio Grande Valley solar scientists later.  The events in McAllen and Harlingen went wonderfully, and the reception I received made me feel like a rock star (in addition to the truck driver, roadie and janitor roles I've been playing during this adventure!).

While in McAllen, Project iLASER events were held on Tuesday October 4 at Carman Elementary School, which is in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (PSJA) Independent School District, and at William Jefferson Clinton Elementary School in rural Penitas, TX, part of the La Joya Independent School District on Wednesday October 5.   Carman Elementary posted the Project iLASER event they hosted on the district calendar.

Shortly after the event on Wednesday at Clinton Elementary I moved eastward down The Valley to Harlingen, where I conducted in-service training for some staff and teachers at Jefferson Elementary School on Thursday October 6 in preparation for the main Project iLASER event held at the school on Friday October 7.  The following photos and their captions ought to provide a good sense of the awesome fun and meaningful science adventures that took place during that week in The Valley.  Furthermore, the Valley Morning Star published a nice ARTICLE about the event at Jefferson Elementary.

Solar Fun at Carman Elementary School

There's a rock star's mug if ever there was a rock star's mug!  I will drink proudly from this and remember fondly the many wonderful people at Carman Elementary school each time I use it.  

That rock star mug was buried inside this wonderful collection of goodies the staff at Carman Elementary so generously gave me.  A big THANK YOU goes out to my friends at Carman Elementary!

These are the students from South Texas College who assisted at the event at Carman Elementary.  Left to right: Juan, Jessica, yours truly, Jorge and Dyandra.  They are excellent ambassadors of science and great role models for the children! 

How's that for an excited group of solar scientists??!!  The students at Carman Elementary were surely excited to participate in the scientific experiments.  Congratulations to Ms. Trevino, who teaches science, and ALL of the teachers and staff at Carman Elementary for preparing such fine students!

Look at that brave young man putting his fingers into those laser beams to stop the music!  There was no fear on his face, and he walked away with all 10 of his fingers in tact.

Judge for yourself: Do these Carman Elementary students look ready to build some solar cells?

Here's an idea: If we climb closer to the sun, we should produce more power from our solar cells, shouldn't we?

Yes, indeed.  We now have irrefutable evidence that science really IS a form of recreation!

Chemistry Abounds at Clinton Elementary School

The event at Clinton Elementary reached a very large number of students who got hands-on experiences.  I'm SO grateful for the help of the students and faculty member from South Texas College who participated in the event.  We were able to work with all of the 4th and 5th graders --- approximately 250 of them.  That's surely a LOT of solar-powered fun!!

Here's a large group of students from Clinton Elementary School who enjoyed getting their hands on some cool science experiments.  Keep in mind, this group photo only contains less than half of the total students who participated.  It was surely a large group of solar scientists!

There I am, facing a sea of bright red shirts worn proudly by the talented scientists at Clinton Elementary.  We had a great discussion about energy sources, photosynthesis and how these very students may discover practical ways to use sunlight to power the planet.  The Coyotes of W.J. Clinton Elementary School are bound for greatness!

We're getting our safety gear on and having a pre-experiment discussion on constructing and testing dye-sensitized solar cells.  Check out the results of those tests below!

Check it out!  There's the same crew from the photo above, and their solar cell is producing 440 millivolts of electric potential.  The combination of south Texas sunshine and the talent of the Clinton Elementary solar scientists can accomplish excellent results!

Here's another group of young scientists from Clinton Elementary.  Their solar cell produced 433 millivolts in full sunlight --- another great job!  See their follow-up experiment below.

Same group as above with same solar cell: Block the sunlight, and the voltage drops quickly --- down to 250 millivolts when the photo was snapped, as it ultimately dropped to nearly 0 millivolts.  Is that solar cell really transforming the sun's light energy to electrical energy?  You bet it is!!  Another fine job by the Clinton scientists!!

There's Dyandra, one of the great volunteers from South Texas College, demonstrating to the young scientists from Clinton Elementary how they can store that abundant south Texas solar energy as hydrogen fuel.

Though not visible in the photo, South Texas College student Juan Gonzalez was leading this group in some hands-on exploration of the potential of powering the planet with sunlight.   There are now hundreds of new believers in the Rio Grande Valley who have faith in the power of the sun to get us through an energy crisis.  These young future leaders will undoubtedly make great contributions to the cause!

The Tigers of Jefferson Elementary School are GRRRREAT!

Jefferson Elementary School first grade teachers Ms. Amanda Gomez (left) and Ms. Patricia Romo (right) opened the morning assembly with a fine portrayal as science "nerds" in a very entertaining manner.  They were a tough act to follow!

Harlingen, TX is a short distance (relatively speaking) to the Gulf of Mexico and served as the "finish line" event of my trek from the western terminus of the border to the eastern terminus.  The students, teachers and staff and Jefferson Elementary School surely did provide a great welcome and made me feel as if I truly were the first person to cross a finish line in a race.

How's that for a warm welcome?!  Thanks so much Jefferson Elementary!

As previously mentioned above, my visit on Thursday October 6 was for in-service training of teachers and staff in the principles and techniques taught through the Project iLASER curriculum.  By their questions and the copious note-taking on their part, it was obvious they were very interested and serious to embrace the opportunity to incorporate science education through sustainable energy into their curriculum.

The event on Friday October 6 commenced with a school-wide assembly, followed by science activities across all grade levels.  The 135 or so 4th and 5th graders participated in the Project iLASER activities, but all of the other grades also had some great science fun as well.   There was something very exciting in the air that day!

**Special thanks go out to Ms. Burbach, the Librarian at Jefferson Elementary School, for providing me with many great photos she took of the day's events.**

Here are Jefferson Elementary students fired-up for science!

Here are my fine assistants demonstrating how water molecules can be rearranged to produce oxygen and hydrogen.  Later that day we went outside and used cool science to allow the sun to carry out that same transformation of water into oxygen and hydrogen.

There was no shortage of excellent questions posed by these curious scientists at Jefferson Elementary.  The young man in the black hooded sweatshirt is my new friend Julian.  He's a great inventor with a wonderful imagination and desire to learn.  Keep up the great work, Julian!

My new scientific colleague Julian and I were having a deep discussion about how we can work together to find solutions to the problems society faces.  He and the other students at Jefferson are well aware that education is at the heart of that quest!

There are Ms. Gomez and Ms. Romo again, along with Principal Manuel Olivo, who really organized a wonderful event at Jefferson Elementary.  The students and staff are very fortunate to have him at the helm.

A group of 5th graders were getting seated in the science lab for our pre-laboratory discussion on light and how we can use light to power the planet. 

Here's a group getting ready to explore the solar-hydrogen activities.

Oh yeah.  They're well on their way to understanding the principles of using sunlight as a clean, sustainable source of power.

Constructing dye-sensitized solar cells??  Sure...bring 'em on.  We're ready to go!

Completed product ready for testing.  Let's go grab some sunlight!

Hey look!  We did it!  Our solar cell is changing sunlight into electricity!!

Monday, October 3, 2011

College Football, Country Music and Rush Limbaugh

Saturday's trek from El Paso to San Antonio: A Long Day's Journey into Night.
Saturday morning October 1 brought with it the feat of driving the Project iLASER van across the desolate plains and hillsides of west Texas, from El Paso to San Antonio (about 550 miles or so).  The conclusion of Sunday's journey found me in the Rio Grande Valley in McAllen (point B on the map below) - a casual weekend jaunt of approximately 800 miles.  I'm now a relative stone's throw from the Project iLASER finish line in Harlingen (point C on the map below) a mere 35 miles to the east. 

Closing in on the Gulf of Mexico.

The first 65 miles or so of Interstate 10, eastbound out of El Paso, hug the border.  It's a curious contrast of serene green with unusual concrete.  Namely, Garden of Eden-esque scenes to the south, where the water from the Rio Grande obviously keeps immediately neighboring vegetation very vivid, contrast the myriad of paved ramps that lead from the shoulder of the interstate into the desert trails north of the river.  It's obvious those ramps are used to permit easy access to the Border Patrol vehicles that incessantly monitor those trails and the terrain surrounding them.  I've lived in southern CA, for more than two decades now, a relatively short distance from the U.S.-Mexico border and have never seen ramps like that.  

Those several hours spent driving through west Texas on Saturday were relatively devoid of communication, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Cell phone coverage was sparse, and for a great distance the only radio broadcasts I was able to receive were college football, country music and Rush Limbaugh.  Don't get me wrong, I am a fan of college football and was very pleased to hear the scoreboard report to learn that the University of Illinois Fighting Illini (my alma mater) defeated the Wildcats of Northwestern University 38-35 in the Big Ten season opening game, improving their overall season record to 5-0.

Further, while the cell phone coverage was thin on the road, the rest areas in Texas guarantee cell phone coverage, and some have wireless internet.  Well, in addition to the usual reasons one stops at a rest area, I stopped into a rest area somewhere in Pecos County to check the score in game 1 of the National League Division Series between my St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies.  I learned that Lance Berkman had hit a three-run home run in the 1st inning to give the Cardinals a great start to a game played in Philadelphia.  However, the Phillies ultimately came back to win game 1 with a score of 11-6, although the Cards won last night's game 5-4 to tie the series, which moves to St. Louis for game 3 tomorrow.

Even though the Cardinals ultimately lost game 1, it would have been wonderful to experience a greater bandwidth of radio to enjoy across west Texas, including the baseball broadcast.  Unfortunately that wasn't the case, and country music and Rush Limbaugh really don't do anything for me, although I am in no way criticizing or condemning anyone for whom such sensory stimuli are pleasing.  More power to ya! 

Sorry for the random ramblings.  The blogging is giving me a chance to decompress after the exhausting weekend journey and before I head into a lab later today at South Texas College (STC), thanks to the kind hospitality of STC chemist Dr. Ludivina (Ludy) Avila, to prepare another batch of electrodes used for children here in The Valley to construct dye-sensitized solar cells.  Ludy is also a firm believer in the importance of science outreach and enrichment activities for children and young adults.  She runs a great Science Olympiad here in The Valley and also advises the very successful STC Student Chapter of the American Chemical Society.

On to recent Project iLASER events...

Excitement in El Paso

Three clubs comprise the Boys & Girls Clubs of El Paso: Club Delta, Club Janacek and Club Petty.  I can't begin to put into words the great things Mr. Arturo Jaime and his excellent staff are doing for the children of El Paso through the endeavors of the Boys & Girls Clubs.  I'm very impressed by the level of community engagement and impact on the children they're having.

An event was held Thursday September 29 at Club Delta and another was held at Club Janacek on Friday September 30.  On Tuesday October 11, during my return trip to Chula Vista, a Project iLASER event will be held at Club Petty.  For now, I'm going to allow the photos below to speak for me.  They undoubtedly ramble less than I do!

Loads of Fun at Club Delta

There's Maribel Morales, Director of Club Delta, holding the schedule for the Club's activities, including the special Project iLASER event.  Maribel does a great job with the Club's members.

That's Addis on the far right.  She was one of my assistants for this event and really has a lot of talent and passion for science.  She's showing some of her younger Club members how blocking the laser light stops the music.

Can you say "Solar-Powered Excitement!"?

There was no shortage of energy in THIS room!

There's Addis taking a leadership role, once again, demonstrating how to dye the titanium dioxide with blackberry juice.

These two teams of solar scientists compared the performances of the solar cells they built.

It was getting late in the day, with the sun sinking low in the sky.  New experiment: Will holding the solar cells closer to the sun increase the output of electricity? [smile]

Miles of Smiles at Club Janacek

The crew at Club Janacek were enthused about the prospect of powering the planet with sunlight.

That's Evelyn and Jesús working together to rearrange the atoms in models of water molecules.

The investigation of light, color and vision was a big hit at Club Janacek.

These children were really having a great time exploring the solar-hydrogen activities.
There was never a lull in the action!

The solar energy stored in the hydrogen was used to power the LEDs.

Serious solar-hydrogen sustainable energy research was obviously happening here!

 Hey!  Look at OUR measurement!

Yep, that's a four year old working that multimeter.
It's obvious how proud and inspired she is to share her experimental outcome.  Excellent job, young lady!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Learning in Las Cruces

This blog entry was created in a hotel room in El Paso, TX.

Two fine Project iLASER events were held in Las Cruces this week.  One event was held Monday September 26th at the Main Clubhouse of the Boys & Girls Club of Las Cruces, and the other was held on Tuesday September 27th at a satellite site of the Boys & Girls Club located at Mesilla Park Elementary School.  A reporter from the Las Cruces Sun-News stopped by the event on Monday and posted a brief ARTICLE and a couple of photos of the fun we had that day.  That same article was picked up by the El Paso Times.  The event was also announced on the website for the United Way of Southwest New Mexico.

I was super-busy during the event at the Main Clubhouse and wasn't able to take many photos.  However, Club Program Director Brian Johnson took several photos, and I'm grateful to him for providing them to me.  However, at Mesilla Park Elementary School event, I had help from a Club volunteer known as "Mr. T." who snapped a few photos, and once I got the children started on the solar-hydrogen activities I was able to grab some great snapshots myself (great due to the subject, not the photographer!).

Some snapshots from the event at the Main Clubhouse

We're preparing to build some dye-sensitized solar cells to capture some of that abundant Las Cruces sunshine and convert it to electricity.

These Las Cruces solar scientists have dyed the titanium dioxide on one electrode with blackberry juice and are now at the point to assemble it with the counter electrode coated in carbon (candle soot).  Soon they'll have a finished product ready for testing in the sunlight.

Before heading out into the sunshine to make the photovoltaic (converting light into electricity) measurements of the solar cells they constructed, these scientists are learning about making electrical measurements with multimeters using batteries.  They already know that batteries make electricity.  Building on their prior knowledge that experience can be extended to the production and measurement of electricity from a photovoltaic source.

Preparing to make a measurement of the home-made dye-sensitized solar cell.

How 'bout that?  Another successful solar cell has been built!
Hey, let me have a look, too!

Photos from Mesilla Park Elementary School

The group at the Mesilla Park Elementary School event was on the young end of the spectrum of solar scientists --- mostly 6 to 9 year-olds.  However, I'm a firm believer that youthful curiosity is the driver of innovation and discovery, and children of this age group are excellent recipients of the message of the importance and excitement of scientific exploration.  I believe the photos below are evidence to support my claim.

Here's part of the Mesilla Elementary crew of solar scientists.

One of the favorite demonstrations is shining green and red laser light through green and red gummy bears.  It's a wonderful way to demonstrate how we see color and the concept of complementary colors and the basic color wheel.

No gummy bears were injured in this demonstration of light, color and vision!

Connecting the lasers & gummy bears experiment to the color wheel.

Once we learned a bit about the nature of light & color, we can explore how light can be applied for important uses, such as medical applications (and ultimately culminating with experiments that demonstrate the potential of using sunlight to power the planet).  Everyone had an opportunity to measure their levels of oxygen saturation in the blood, and, after the lesson about complementary colors, these children were very readily able to predict which color of light (red) would be used in the pulse oximeter!

He had 98% oxygen saturation in his blood - the picture of health!

These two solar scientists worked together to rearrange the atoms in models of two water molecules.

The two children in the photo above rearranged the atoms in models of two water molecules, joining hydrogen exclusively with hydrogen and oxygen exclusively with oxygen.  They ultimately made two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen.  They next allowed sunlight to rearrange those bonds in water "for real" and then used the hydrogen produced through that process to power electronic devices (flashing LEDs) using a hydrogen fuel cell.  Furthermore, twice the volume of hydrogen gas was collected in a syringe as the volume of oxygen gas collected.  The experiment matched the prediction shown with the models.  How cool is that?!

They're in a "zone", working diligently to capture some of the sun's energy and store it in the chemical bonds of hydrogen gas produced by splitting water with electricity produced by the solar panel.

There's six year old Emma showing her mom the potential for powering the planet with sunlight!