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Particle accelerating ... in high school

From analyzing acid rain and taste-testing honey to studying meteorites, Canadian students are making the most of rare research time on Canada's synchrotron
March 10, 2010
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Canadian Light Source

For Palak Suryavenshi, the grade-12 science lab was the first step in a journey that led to a chance to test a hypothesis on one of North America’s most advanced particle accelerators.

In 2007, Suryavenshi and her classmates from Saskatoon’s Centennial Collegiate worked with researchers at the University of Saskatchewan’s Canadian Light Source (CLS) to explore the effects of nitric acid rain on Quebec’s boreal forest.

The students used one of the synchrotron’s beamlines that converts X-rays into frequencies ideal for analyzing soil samples. Their results suggested that nitric acid rain selectively leaches certain types of aluminum from the soil and can then transport it through the soil — an insight that any established researcher would have been happy to make.

“I got a real feel for the research and developed the critical-thinking abilities a scientist needs,” says Suryavenshi, now a first-year science student at the university.

Suryavenshi’s research opportunity arose through the Students on the Beamlines program, which awards a day of research time on the stadium-sized CLS facility to a Canadian high school team that submits a successful proposal. The program began in 2006, after a Saskatoon high school teacher suggested it would be beneficial for the students to become more involved during visits to the CLS.

“The aim for the students,” says CLS education and outreach coordinator Tracy Walker, “is to get an authentic scientific inquiry that’s different from the examples in textbooks that have been done thousands of times.”

In 2008, a team of students from Lloydminster Comprehensive High School was awarded a shift on a CLS beamline to study the taste differences in honey derived from different flowers. One of the students had come up with the idea after getting lost in thought over a morning bowl of Honeycomb cereal.

Investigating 10 floral samples, including canola, buckwheat and fireweed, the students found that different honeys had different colours, consistencies and tastes. By using the synchrotron, they were able to distinguish aromatic compounds that affect flavour.

The beamline program continues to reap results. Earlier this year, a team from Bell High School in Ottawa used the synchrotron to study how titanium dioxide nanopowder, an ingredient found in some sunscreens, affects plant growth. And a group of Nova Scotian high school students helped University of Saskatchewan researchers extract enough chemical information from a meteorite fragment to determine its asteroid source. 

“The CLS gave us the opportunity to find out something new,” says Bell student Eric Langois, ”rather than just something we read out of a textbook.”