A group of eighth-grade students at Islip Middle School got a crack at some big time, mega-cool scientific hardware at Brookhaven National Lab recently for a water-filter test.
They were the first middle school students to use the lab's National Synchrotron Light Source - under the watchful eye of a group of scientists - after submitting a winning proposal to the lab's Introducing Synchrotrons into the Classroom program.
"They competed and held their own against high school students," said Scott Bronson, a scientist who works with the lab's office of educational programs. "It was an impressive effort."
But not only were the Islip eighth-graders the youngest, they volunteered to do their entire project after school.
"I said, 'Who wants to have some fun?' " said their teacher, Ashley Bloch. And a group of students from both regular and advanced science classes answered her call.
"We use water every day, so it was interesting to find out what goes into our drinking water," Emily Fontinha, 13, said. She was talking through a video link from the school to the lab in Upton, as Tony Lanzirotti, a geochemist from the University of Chicago, used a pipette to place drops from the students' first water sample on beam line X26A, one of 60 lines that operate 24/7.
On a lab computer screen, the students looked very, very small as we watched them watch Lanzirotti go about his work. That's because the largest display window on the screen was given over to a chart that would graph in real time the major elements that turned up in the students' water samples when they were probed by a micrometer-sized, fluorescent X-ray beam.
First up for testing, a sample of water straight from a sink in the school's science room. The beam picked up argon - which is in air - along with calcium, titanium, iron and copper.
Second up, the students' base sample: Water they had enriched with shreds of copper and iron. That heavy-metal blend was then used to test the effectiveness of three popular home water filters.
The third sample on the beam line provided the first test of the students' water filters experiment: It was the brand that students predicted would come out on top. And, early on, things looked good, as the graph measured far fewer traces of copper and iron than in raw Sample Two.
The students clapped at the results and paid rapt attention over two hours, through the testing and considerable back and forth between students and the scientists.
Eventually, the testing finished with their fourth and fifth samples, which came from pitchers using two other popular home water filters. Both showed far fewer traces of copper and iron than Sample Two, but hardly topped the first water filter results.
But how could the students know - so early and with such certainty - which filter would come out on top? The answer came a few days later, during a visit to their science classroom. There, the students still had three pitchers of water, one for each of the filters they tested. In two of the pitchers, the water was cloudy with bits of metal resting on the bottom.
But, after more than a week, the first pitcher remained clear.
"I think it's because there are two filters, so the water goes through two sets of charcoal," Robert Sgroi, 13, said.
At some point, the students will meet with the scientists to go over the test results. And already they are eagerly anticipating letters they plan to write to all the water filter companies.
As for the future, one of the students plans to become a dentist; another wants to be a veterinarian; three want to form a rock band; and three more are undecided, which is fine because in eighth grade, all things are possible.
But the scientists at Brookhaven have hopes for the middle school students.
"Part of our job is replacing ourselves," said Bronson, whose ID hangs on a bright red lanyard that singles him out as an INVENTOR. "Water is a global issue and maybe one of these kids is going to be interested in that. We need to inspire the next generation," he said.