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STEM Horizons for High Achievers

STEM Horizons for High Achievers is a program offering Year 9 students from selected schools across Queensland the opportunity to experience STEM events designed to extend their scientific learning beyond the classroom. Three high-achieving students are selected to attend four days of specialist activities at a range of locations including the Princess Alexandra Hospital, UQ Moreton Bay Research Station and Griffith University. Activities are hands-on and focus on students using higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills in authentic scenarios. Daniel Carton, Emma Gleeson and Naveen Hingorani relate their experiences below.

Gay Ellyett
Coordinator: Exceptional Scientists' Program

On Wednesday 6 June, Naveen, Emma and I went to Griffith University for Workshop 3: Campus Scene Investigators. To begin, we took notes on a mock crime scene and drew a diagram of its layout. We then documented the evidence by barcoding each piece and learning where the different types of evidence needed to be sent for analysis. We then went to the laboratories where we split into two groups. Our group started by testing which frequencies of light certain energy drinks and copper sulphate absorbed. When compared to the crime scene, we could then deduce which drink contained copper sulphate. We then swapped with Group Two and began chromatography. We partnered up, and one partner prepared the material for the water absorption by pencilling in the heights and dotting different pen types on it, while the other took the ink from the crime scene and turned it into a liquid. We then hung the chromatography paper over some de-ionised water so that the bottom was just sitting in it, and let the water spread up it. The different components of the ink travel up the paper at different rates, which allow each ink to be differentiated, identifying whose pen was used at the crime scene. We then moved to a different laboratory to study the blood found at the crime scene. We began by identifying that it was blood, by mixing it with two different chemicals and watching it change colour. The chemicals that we were using were very dangerous and we had to wear gloves while dealing with them. After that, we studied some DNA tests of the blood to determine whose blood it was. We then went to another building and took our fingerprints using inkless ink (non-stain ink) to work out whose fingerprints were left at the crime scene. The entire day was very interesting and I learned a lot. It was an experience worth having.

On Thursday 7 June, we went to SPARQ-ed for Workshop 4: A View Inside a Cell. We began by learning about the different proteins used within cells, how they’re made and what they do. We then learned about the green fluorescent protein and how scientists splice it with proteins inside the cell so they can be tracked while the cell is still alive. Before that the only way to determine the location of a protein was to kill the cell and look for it manually. We then went into the lab where we began by learning how to use pipettes (very exact measuring devices) properly, and then tested our knowledge by measuring out different amounts of liquid and seeing if it was the amount it should be. After that, we got some bacteria, put it in two test tubes and put them in the centrifuge to separate the bacteria from the liquid. We then heated one up to 95 degrees for five minutes, and the other we filtered and put through the centrifuge again. After that we put them in some gel and ran an electric current through it. This separated the proteins and let us see that the ones that were heated up didn’t have the green florescent protein but the ones that were filtered did. We also did some microscopy with different object. We created a slide with some of the bacteria on it and viewed it under a microscope. We could see all the tiny bacteria moving around in it. We also looked at some pollen. Overall, it was an engaging day where we learnt many wonderful and interesting things about cells and how they work.

Daniel Carton, Year 9

Campus Scene Investigators focused on solving a murder mystery, teaching us aspects of forensic science along the way. We were given access to the university’s modern chemistry laboratory, and performed tests to detect poison in a sports drink, analyse blood samples and ink. We also met professionals who worked in forensic science, such as a Scene of Crime Officer and a Forensic Dentistry Specialist. Meeting these individuals gave us an informed insight into the career path of forensic research. Overall, this event was a great opportunity to learn more about this profession, not to mention thought provoking and enjoyable.

The next day we visited the Princess Alexandra Hospital for the final day of the STEM Horizons program, A View Inside a Cell. This took place in the SPARQ-ed Labs of the hospital’s TRI Building. The focus of the day was microbiology, and more specifically, the contents and function of DNA. We were taught how to use micropipettes, which we used to perform a protein electrophoresis on fluorescent jellyfish DNA. This process allowed the proteins to be visualized on a gel surface as a ladder. We were then given the opportunity to view yeast, bacteria and pollen under an electronic microscope, up to 400 times larger. The STEM Horizons program was a great chance to learn more and about science and have access to facilities and equipment normally unavailable to us.

Emma Gleeson, Year 9

At Griffith University’s EcoCentre a practice crime scene and fake scenario were set up for us. A scientist named Dr Arthur Bravo had been researching the effects of copper in cattle feed. He had become sick one day, and then had been found dead the following day with his sports drinks and tie next to him. We had four suspects (including Dr Bravo), and it was our task to analyse the evidence to conclude how Dr Bravo had died.

To begin, a Forensic Police Officer described what her job entailed. She told us about crime scenes she would be likely to attend, and what her role would be in the investigation of the crime. Because she was not a specialist, she would not process any evidence; however, she would collect it. She even showed us how she collects the evidence and files it. I found the experience very insightful and interesting.

Throughout the rest of the day, we analysed pieces of evidence found at the crime scene. First, we analysed the contents of the sports drinks that Dr Bravo had recently consumed. We tested the absorbance values of the drinks, which are the wavelengths of light that a substance absorbs. With this method, we discovered that one of Dr Bravo’s Powerade drinks had been spiked with copper sulphate, a poisonous substance. It was this that caused his sickness the previous day. I found testing the absorbance values of the substances fun.

Next, we used chromatography to determine whose pen had been used to write a note found at the crime scene. Chromatography is a method used to separate the ink in a pen. Because pen inks are made of different inks mixed together, the inks can be separated through chromatography. The patterns that are made by the separation of the inks can be used to match a pen to an ink.

Third, we analysed the fingerprints found on the sports drinks at the crime scene. We learnt about the distinguishable marks in a fingerprint which allow analysts to match fingerprints. We even tried matching fingerprints ourselves! This was a fun and insightful task.

Finally, we tested the blood found at the crime scene. We learnt about the process that a potential blood sample must go through. Because it costs approximately $1000 to DNA test blood, the sample must be tested with other tests beforehand. We tested if the sample was blood using two tests, a Phenolphthalein test and a Tetramethylbenzidine test. Both chemicals changed colour, indicating that the sample was blood. We were also taught how a DNA test works and were shown the results of one DNA test.

After all the activities, we were given a few more pieces of evidence and then we attempted to solve the crime. There was not enough evidence to prove what happened, but the evidence did suggest a story. The most likely scenario was that Dr Bravo had been poisoned with a sub-fatal dose of copper sulphate and was then killed by strangulation with his tie by another suspect, most likely for a different reason.

I found the experience very engaging and informative. It was interesting to see what happens when a crime takes place. I loved that we got to extend ourselves beyond what we normally can in class.

The next day, we travelled to the Princess Alexandra Hospital to learn about the biology of a cell. We learnt about the basic structure and role of DNA in our cells and how they can be genetically modified by implanting chosen DNA into the cell. We then carried out two investigations to investigate how a cell works.

For the first experiment, we separated different parts of DNA according to their mass. For this, we used E. coli (Escherichia coli) bacteria that had been genetically engineered to fluoresce green under UV light. A certain type of jellyfish, called the Aequorea Victoria, naturally glows green because of a protein called Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP). The E. coli bacteria had all had GFP genetically introduced to the cell, to cause them to glow green when viewed under UV light. We destroyed the cell membrane¸ which allowed the different parts of the cell to spill out. We then removed the parts of the cell that would just get in our way. We then followed a protocol to separate the remaining parts of the cell by mass. This protocol used Polyacrylamide Gel Electrophoresis, which is a process that separates the parts of the cell by placing them in a jelly-like substance and then applying a current to the substance. This current causes the parts of the cell to move away from the negative electrode and towards the positive electrode. The different parts travelled differing distances, depending on their mass. In this way, we separated the GFP from the rest of the parts of the E. coli bacteria. It was quite interesting to view the glowing GFP.

The second investigation that we performed was viewing different substances under a microscope. We viewed the GFP-expressing bacteria, yeast samples, and pollen samples under a microscope. The microscope also had different lights, allowing us to view the samples under different conditions and see if they reacted to it. This was very interesting to do, because there is a lot of interesting detail in the substances that we viewed.

The day was very engaging, because we learnt about advanced scientific concepts and were also able to perform hands-on investigations. I learnt new skills to take with me into my regular science classes. All four days of activities were fun and engaging. I enjoyed stretching my scientific abilities and knowledge and learning in a hands-on way. I have benefited from this experience.

Naveen Hingorani, Year 9