A Matter of Scale: Madison Academy Students Visit NFCC Science LabSep 19th, 2013 | By Admin | Category: Education
By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
When Willa Branham’s sixth grade class from Madison Academy goes on a field trip, they go all the way to the outer edges of the known universe and back again…figuratively speaking. They were visiting the NFCC Science Lab to learn about different kinds of microscopes and the kind of things that exist at the microscopic level of a skin cell. To give the students an idea of scale and the relative size of things, NFCC biology instructor Bonnie Littlefield first took the students on a video journey, zooming out and out and out, until a city became a dot on a landmass, then the landmass became indistinguishable from the rest of the small dot that was planet Earth. Increasing the scale and backing out farther and farther, past Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune, the Sun became indistinguishable from the rest of the stars. Backing out to the edge of the galaxy, the solar system becomes a small speck in the Milky Way. Going out to the edge of the universe and farther, past numerous galaxies and nebulae, the scale grows so immense that our entire universe diminishes. Beyond that, the scale becomes…big. In the words of Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is.” Then the trip was reversed, and suddenly everyone was going back the other way; back to the universe, back to the Milky Way, back to the solar system and back to earth, scaling down along the way, until it was down to people and ordinary objects in a human environment. Zooming in from there took the scale down even further to the size of small animals, then down to insects, then down to the level of a single human skin cell. At this scale, the microscopic scale, live the smallest organisms (such as bacteria) that can still be seen in the available visible light spectrum…with the help of an optical microscope, that is. Any smaller than that – for example, going down to the smallness at the level of the virus – and the available visible light spectrum is useless. To see things as small as viruses requires an electron microscope. A virus is small. You just won’t believe how minutely, infinitesimally, mindbogglingly small it is…. However, the Madison Academy sixth graders were dealing with the microscopic range at the cellular level that could be seen with visible light spectrum and standard optical microscopes, as well as a few larger specimens. Also, several of these ‘scopes were equipped with a little something extra – computer screens that displayed the image one could see through the microscope viewer. The fact that NFCC’s science lab had several of these is a bit impressive, Littlefield told the students, considering that a large, nearby state university is known to have only one. There were enough of these microscopes set up around the lab, at different magnifications and with different specimens, so that each student could look at one without waiting in line, and then rotate around the room to the different microscopes, looking at sights that ranged from cell structures to the forest of toothpicks and small holes that comprised the surface of a starfish. After everyone had a chance to look through each microscope, they also had a chance to see a mesh cage where caterpillars were dining on herb plants and building chrysalises to change themselves into butterflies. As the lab tour wound down, Littlefield took questions on the subject and spoke to the students about preparing science projects for the upcoming science fair.