Instructor Frank Orfino, centre, an electron microscopist with the Centre for Soft Materials in 4D LABS, assists (l-r): student Rita Dubman, TA Sarah Makin, and student Sarah Ellis with the centre’s scanning electron microscope.


Experiential learning in 4D LABS wins students’ approval

September 26, 2014

By Diane Luckow

Third-year science student Sarah Ellis experienced a tantalizing glimpse into real-world scientific research during the spring semester when she and 25 classmates conducted hands-on experiments in 4D LABS.

During their course in Earth Science 208, Introduction to Geochemistry, they learned to operate a suite of cutting-edge equipment in 4D LABS—SFU’s materials research institute. It offers academic, industrial and government researchers access to the latest research technologies.

With SFU’s growing commitment to embed experiential learning into students’ courses, professor and Canada Research Chair Byron Gates, who heads the Centre for Soft Materials in 4D Labs, encourages more faculty to incorporate the lab’s techniques and equipment into their classroom teaching.

During Ellis’ course in Earth Science, she and classmates examined mineral samples at the nanometer scale, or one-billionth of a meter. They produced micrometer-scale images of their samples using an FEI Explorer scanning electron microscope. It is equipped with energy-dispersive x-ray spectroscopy to analyse the samples’ elemental and chemical identities.

The students also measured their minerals’ molecular structure, or crystal lattice, using a Bruker x-ray diffraction spectrometer.

“This gives us its characteristics—its fingerprint,” says Ellis. “Once you discover the lattice structure you’re able to correlate that with data to confirm what the mineral is, because different minerals will produce different diffraction patterns.”

Interestingly, Ellis’ mineral sample turned out to be something other than what it was sold as.

Earth sciences professor Dan Marshall, who taught the course, says it was the first time he has used 4D LABS to give students hands-on experience, and he plans to repeat the experience during his next teaching semester.

Using the high-tech equipment, he says, gives students more options than they have in traditional controlled laboratory experiments, where they examine supplied minerals to determine the physical properties they can see with the human eye. In 4D Labs, students can test mineral samples they may have purchased for their personal mineral collection or found during fieldwork.

“I believe students always learn more if they’re interested in what they’re learning,” says Marshall.

Ellis says learning to operate such high-tech machinery should prove useful in the workplace.

“It was a way to transform what we learn in the books to a real-world situation,” she adds. “I think everybody can benefit from hands-on learning. It correlates exactly what we learn in the book to applications in the field.”

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