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Looking Deeper

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Playing with microscopes allows students to discover more than just fun
Kids' Night with a Microscope
Lone Grove fifth graders were able to work with Noble Research Institute Professor Elison Blancaflor, Ph.D., and a spinning disc confocal microscope.
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Here's a secret about microscopes.

For the most part, every student in every biology class across the country that uses common light microscopes are typically only looking at dead cells. Death, of course, makes biology - the study of living organisms - highly problematic.

Noble Research Institute Professor Elison Blancaflor and his colleagues with the Oklahoma Microscopy Society (OMS) recently offered an interesting alternative to a group of fifth graders from Southern Oklahoma: spend one evening working with the world's most advanced microscopes - instruments so powerful they can view not only living cells, but the individual elements within the cell.

For one night this spring, the Noble Research Institute and OMS hosted 25 students from Lone Grove Elementary for the annual "Kid's Night with a Microscope" Event.

"This is an opportunity these students otherwise wouldn't have," said Amy Benson, who teaches fifth grade science class at Lone Grove. "It's like being a real scientist for a night. They get to dream a little."

Clad in their pint-sized, white lab coats, the students rotated through a series of stations, each offering an activity with a new type of microscope.

At one stop, students used a tabletop scanning electron microscope to map the cellular landscape of a sample they selected from home. Some brought bugs. Another had collected a skin of a snake. Each was able peer into a world so detailed that the crevices of a scorpion tail looked like the Grand Canyon. "We use these microscopes every day and sometimes forget their power," said Blancaflor, Ph.D., who oversees Noble's cellular imaging facility. "The students are so enthusiastic, it just energizes us."

Students then piled into Blancaflor's laboratory to Noble's laser-capture, microdissection microscope. This particular microscope allows scientists to harvest individual cells for genomic studies. The pre-teens used it to carve their names in glass.

"The students see that microscopes are not just for examining items close up, but they have so many functions," said Cindy Crane, a Noble research assistant. "They are amazing tools, and the students get to actually use each one."

The ruckus in the laser dissection room was only matched by the stunned awe from those watching the spinning disc confocal microscope. There before them, students caught a glimpse of the organelles inside a living cell, buzzing around like pedestrians on a busy street. "When the students see a living cell moving before their eyes, something happens," Blancaflor said. "They just come alive with excitement."

In the Noble Library, students learned about convex and concave lenses, and explored several scientific-related gadgets. Parents Billy and Joyce McFatridge stood and watched their son Dylan carefully studying a lens, rolling it in his hand like a precious stone. "Science has always been about pictures in a text book. Here they are not just reading about it, they're experiencing it," Billy McFatridge said. "It just triggers their imagination."

Eventually, every student discovered the hair-raising power of a Van de Graaff generator. One by one, they placed their hands on the metallic globe, watching as a charge gave life to their follicles which was usually followed by a burst of giggles. "The Van de Graaff may not have a lot to do with microscopes," said Ernie Sanchez, physics outreach coordinator for the University of Oklahoma and OMS member, "But we want to get them interacting with science at a young age, to see that it is fun, to make a memory they'll have forever."

As the event drew to a close, 11-year-old Sam Monroe found his parents and summed up the experience by saying: "I liked science a little before tonight, but now I like it a lot. I think it's so cool."

Funny what one evening with a microscope can do.