Fanny Rodolakis was a big hit with the Lowell Elementary fifth graders when she spoke to them virtually about science under the auspices of the Argonne National Laboratory STEM Chat program sponsored by Argonne Education and Outreach.
Rodolakis, who is a physicist with the Argonne X-ray Science Division Magnetic Materials Group at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Photon Source (APS), held a Google Meet with 15 students from the District 200 Wheaton-Warrenville (IL) school. Her chat subjects ranged from the personal to the professional to the scientific as she described herself, her work, how she became a physicist, what light is, what physics is, what kinds of experiments she does, and why that type of research is important.
“The kids were very engaged,” Rodolakis said. “They asked a lot of excellent questions." These included:
How small are the samples you measure? (“From a few mm―roughly the size of a sharp pencil point―down to 1/10 of a mm, about the size of a human hair.”)
How do you find them if they are so small? (“Good question. I use cameras to locate the sample and sometimes, if they are too small to be seen with a camera, I have to move them around in the x-ray beam; when the x-ray beam touches the sample, a lot of electrons come out, which tells me I am on the sample.”)
Do the samples burn when you put the x-ray on them? (“It depends what type of sample; the ones I measure are like rocks, so they are not destroyed by the x-ray beam, but if you were to put some plastics, for example, in the x-ray path, then yes, they will burn.”)
What is the coolest thing you have measured? (“Some scientists have measured mummies! I did not participate in this one but I think that is definitely the coolest experiment that was done at the APS!”)
“I absolutely love the STEM chats,” said Rodolakis, who is co-chair of the APS Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Council, “and I believe outreach is an essential part of the Argonne DEI effort. Representation is key; the more children get exposed to this kind of thing, the better we can increase diversity in science. Every little girl I can inspire to become a scientist is a step toward improving that diversity. It is going to be a long haul, but definitely worth it. A parent contacted me on LinkedIn to thank me for inspiring his little girl to become a scientist!
“I focus on the youngest grades [K-5] because I believe that if you don't like science by the time you reach middle school, it is often too late, there is no coming back from it. Talking science to a 6-year-old is definitely a challenge, but it is also more impactful. Kids that age are so genuinely curious!
“I literally spent an entire day on my first presentation, trying to find ways to make it accessible and interesting, following the guidance of [Argonne Outreach Coordinator] Brandon Pope who gave us some tips during the STEM Chat training session. I ended up giving my presentation to both of my kids’ classes, after which my son Owen told me two of his female friends said they wanted to become a scientist like me (my youngest son Micah was more interested in the presentation from a University of Chicago student who talked about black holes!)”
These STEM chats are free, 30-minute, live virtual Q & A sessions with a STEM professional (either an Argonne staff member or a University of Chicago student). Teachers are instructed to select up to a maximum of two chats/slots from the session list. After selection and confirmation, the Argonne Education office sends a bio of the elected STEM professional(s), so that students can prepare questions ahead of the chat day and time. The STEM professional gives a brief 10-minute presentation, then the remaining 20 minutes are open for Q & A by the students.
“One of the best things STEM chat volunteers say to the students are comments like ‘I had no idea this is what I would end up being while I was in high school!,’ ” said Brandon Pope. “Those statements tell students that it is ok to not have your life figured out while in your teens. Furthermore, as long as they are open to new opportunities, they will have many professional options to choose from.”
For more information on the STEM Chat program, see https://www.anl.gov/education/stem-chat-0.
― Fanny Rodolakis & Richard Fenner
The U. S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory is one of the world’s most productive X-ray light source facilities. The APS provides high-brightness X-ray beams to a diverse community of researchers in materials science, chemistry, condensed matter physics, the life and environmental sciences, and applied research. These X-rays are ideally suited for explorations of materials and biological structures; elemental distribution; chemical, magnetic, electronic states; and a wide range of technologically important engineering systems from batteries to fuel injector sprays, all of which are the foundations of our nation’s economic, technological, and physical well-being. Each year, more than 5,000 researchers use the APS to produce over 2,000 publications detailing impactful discoveries, and solve more vital biological protein structures than users of any other X-ray light source research facility. APS scientists and engineers innovate technology that is at the heart of advancing accelerator and light-source operations. This includes the insertion devices that produce extreme-brightness X-rays prized by researchers, lenses that focus the X-rays down to a few nanometers, instrumentation that maximizes the way the X-rays interact with samples being studied, and software that gathers and manages the massive quantity of data resulting from discovery research at the APS.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.