Duke Engineering Lab Offers Public School Science Teachers Nanotechnology Experience

September 15, 2021 | Elizabeth Witherspoon

Stefan Zauscher’s lab provides hands-on summer research experiences for two public school science teachers, reaping benefits in the process

man in red shirt pointing at research poster on easel and explaining it to three other men

Joshua Hartzog, science teacher at East Chapel Hill High School, presents research from his summer work on a microfluidic medical device in Stefan Zauscher’s (second from right) lab at the RTNN-RET Nanotechnology Symposium at NC State University.

The best teachers always keep learning. They renew their passion, strengthen their knowledge base and polish their skills at every opportunity, then transfer it all back to the classroom.

Stefan Zauscher’s lab in the Thomas Lord Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science (MEMS) at Duke gave two high school science teachers such an opportunity this summer.

Through a National Science Foundation-supported Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program in partnership with the Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network (RTNN), they each spent five weeks developing microfluidic shear-wave sensor devices (i.e., quartz crystal resonators combined with tiny channels to control fluids for biosensing applications), including experiencing what it’s like to suit up and work in the cleanroom of Duke’s Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility (SMIF). Labs at North Carolina State University hosted an additional nine teachers for this year’s RET-RTNN program for a total of 11 across the two schools.

“The greatest benefit is being able to share the experience of what it is like to do research with my students.”

Josh Hartzog | Science teacher, East Chapel Hill High School

One of the two teachers in Zauscher’s lab worked on designing, fabricating and testing different microfluidic channel geometries for use in the sensor devices. In addition to receiving training in photolithographic processes, he also learned about fluorescence microscopy and image analysis. The other teacher focused on determining whether an immunoassay (biochemical test) could work with the sensor to measure the concentration of large molecules in blood plasma samples.

The microfluidic shear-wave sensor holds promise for use in clinical diagnostics and point-of-care medical settings.

“The greatest benefit is being able to share the experience of what it is like to do research with my students,” said Josh Hartzog, who teaches Advanced Placement Biology and Physical Science at East Chapel Hill High School. “When students are conducting their own experiments and their results aren't as expected or something doesn't work, I will be able to relate to them that this is the norm when doing research and that the process is iterative and takes time.”

man in cleanroom suit looking into equipment

Kevin Lloyd, a grade 9-12 teacher for Durham Public Schools Hospital School at Duke University Medical Center, agrees.

“The five-week RET program is unique in that there is much more time to learn and understand the science. That will make a big difference for me in how well I’m able to teach these concepts to my students,” said Lloyd. “It was much longer than most professional development opportunities I’ve had, so we did get to see what setbacks and challenges in the lab are like.”

Hartzog and Lloyd also had successes and made useful contributions through their research that Zauscher said moved his lab’s project forward. At the end of the program in July, all 11 participating teachers presented posters about their research at a nanotechnology symposium hosted by RTNN at NC State.

The experience also served as professional development for Zauscher’s own PhD students who developed experiments, trained the teachers and supervised their projects. Sam (Yicheng) Zhao, a PhD student who is currently in China, designed the microfluidic systems the teachers executed and communicated with them virtually. PhD student Daniel French helped with cleanroom training and day-to-day operations in the lab.

“I think there is a benefit in general, in terms of the enrichment. You have someone in the lab who enjoys learning something new and new insights from them feeding back to us,” said Zauscher, a MEMS professor, who is also director of the Duke Materials Initiative. “I think the benefits go both ways. It’s an interesting social interaction and it feels good to contribute to STEM education at all levels.”

Zauscher added that he enjoys participating in the RET-RTNN and has now welcomed teachers into his lab for the second summer, the first being in 2019, because the program is so well-run. It doesn’t require him to develop special curricula and the support by the staff at RTNN, Director Jacob Jones and Associate Director Maude Cuchiara, enables his lab group to easily integrate the RET activities into their summer plans.

Click here to learn more about Research Experiences for Teachers through RTNN.