Educators Dive into STEM Experiments Led by Naval Academy Midshipmen

During a Bioengineering module, Midshipman 3rd-Class Emma Carlson (left) assists Felixberto Lazaro, Terese Falabella, and Amanda Mulder as they build a model of the lungs to examine Boyle's Law, relating pressure and volume.  Lazaro teaches at C. Elizabeth Rieg High School in Prince Georges County, Maryland; Falabella teaches at San Miguel School in Washington, D.C.; and Mulder works at St. Andrews Day School in Annapolis, Maryland. Photo by Mark Murray.

During a Bioengineering module, Midshipman 3rd-Class Emma Carlson (left) assists Felixberto Lazaro, Terese Falabella, and Amanda Mulder as they build a model of the lungs to examine Boyle’s Law, relating pressure and volume. Lazaro teaches at C. Elizabeth Rieg High School in Prince Georges County, Maryland; Falabella teaches at San Miguel School in Washington, D.C.; and Mulder works at St. Andrews Day School in Annapolis, Maryland. Photo by Mark Murray.

By Cynthia Greenwood, DoD Corrosion Policy and Oversight Office

A group of over ninety secondary school instructors and museum educators attended a United States Naval Academy STEM workshop on September 26, a program designed to strengthen instructors’ skills in teaching principles of electrochemistry, astronomy, optics, physics, math, chemistry, and bioengineering, among others.

In one module, educators were introduced to the basics of electrochemistry, and the role of the anode, cathode, and electrolyte in particular electrochemical reactions.  The participants learned how these concepts figure in certain corrosion and corrosion prevention processes, as well as the operation of batteries and fuel cells.  “During the corrosion module, I instructed the faculty on using copper, zinc, and vinegar to create a voltage and ultimately, to construct batteries,” explained Paige Monk, Midshipmen 3rd class and math major, who served as a workshop mentor. “Once a voltage was present, the next task was to get a three-volt light to illuminate.”

The teachers also observed midshipmen-led demonstrations of water electrolysis, fuel cell operation, electrically forced electrochemical corrosion, and cathodic protection.   “They learned that oxygen is generated on submarines by electrolyzing water, and that cathodic protection is used on navy ships to prevent corrosion,” said Angela Moran, professor of mechanical engineering and the director of USNA’s STEM Center for Education and Outreach.

During one hands-on lesson, the participants learned how to build and test a copper penny, zinc washer battery, while observing how the corrosion of the zinc proved to be the anodic reaction in the cell.  “For this battery, they used household vinegar as an electrolyte,” Monk said.  They also powered buzzers and LEDs (light-emitting diodes) with these batteries, she added.  Educators also assembled a combination battery and fuel cell composed of a magnesium anode, which they watched corrode, and a carbon air cathode with concentrated salt water as the electrolyte.  “They used the battery and fuel cell to power a small electric vehicle,” explained Monk.

Midshipman 3rd-Class Paige Monk (from left) assists Erik Wright and Eury J. Cantillo as they build coin batteries. Wright is an education specialist at the Great Lakes Naval Museum and Cantillo serves as director of education at the Submarine Force Museum. Photo by Mark Murray.

Midshipman 3rd-Class Paige Monk (from left) assists Erik Wright and Eury J. Cantillo as they build coin batteries. Wright is an education specialist at the Great Lakes Naval Museum and Cantillo serves as director of education at the Submarine Force Museum. Photo by Mark Murray.

“I will be using all of the electrochemistry demonstrations that we participated in at the corrosion stations in my ninth-grade science classes,” said Elizabeth Southworth, an instructor at Dr. Henry A. Wise High School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.

Educators who participated in Astronomy and Optics demonstrations had an opportunity to explore astronomy, as well as physics, math, chemistry, environmental science, and astrobiology, with the help of Midshipman 3rd-Class Nick Costa, a nuclear engineering major. The hands-on activities focused on absorption, transmission, and reflection — specifically, how light travels when it interacts with a different medium.

The teachers began by analyzing the emission spectra of helium and hydrogen gases through spectroscopes and diffraction gratings. “In astronomy, it is not always known what something is made of, and spectroscopy is the best way of determining the chemical properties, temperature, and size of an object,” said Costa. “We discussed the ways in which Navy researchers use spectroscopy to detect the emission radiation of explosive surrogates, as well as other experimentation involving lasers.”

The teachers also calculated the refractive index of water by applying Snell’s Law. During the module, refraction cups, which are semi-circular disks that contain a liquid, were filled with water, Costa explained. The teachers traced the path of a laser as it bent between the air and water interface. “Refraction is crucial to navy divers who experience this bending of light at the boundary between the water and their masks,” said Rachel Hetlyn, an astronomer and planetary physicist who teaches practical applications for the STEM Center.

The teachers ended the astronomy module by exploring the properties of reflection with a reflect-view mirror, a device that allows a user to see the reflection of an object while also seeing through a mirror. They learned that submariners rely heavily on reflection while using a periscope to observe the surface for nearby threats or targets without emerging from the water. According to Costa, “Whether it was through a piece of plastic demonstrating reflection, or through water bending a laser’s light through Snell’s law, physical demonstrations of scientific concepts definitely helped build a stronger understanding of the actual scientific concept at hand.”

“At the workshop I came away with a much better understanding of the connections between optics and astronomy,” said Christine Campbell, a sixth-grade science teacher at Spring Ridge Middle School in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. “I think that will change some of the discussion that I have in class with my students.”

Workshop participants hailed from schools in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, while museum staff came from the U.S. Naval War College Museum, Great Lakes Naval Museum, National Museum of the U.S Navy, Submarine Force Museum, Naval Historical Foundation, and USS Hornet Museum.

The USNA STEM Center receives support from the Technical Corrosion Collaboration (TCC), a program sponsored by the DoD Corrosion Policy and Oversight Office, which helps universities broaden their corrosion science and engineering research. One of the TCC’s principal missions is to support university STEM programs as a means to increase the number of corrosion scientists and engineers in the DoD and military contractor community. The STEM Center’s teacher workshops are also supported by the Office of Naval Research, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and the Naval Academy Foundation.

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