One of the biggest myths about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is that it involves rote memorization of textbooks and monotonous multiple-choice tests. Instead, interactive learning is one of the best ways to learn STEM-related concepts.
Problem-solving, risk-taking, communication, collaboration, and conflict resolution are just a few STEM skills best taught through engaging activities. Many K-12 schools and higher education institutions have shifted their teaching to reflect these realities. Now, even government-sponsored research laboratories are getting involved. Read on to learn about one leading national laboratory and its Traveling Science Fair.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is the largest scientific research laboratory sponsored by the United States Department of Energy (DOE). Located outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, ORNL employs 4,750 people and hosts an additional 3,200 visiting scientists annually.
All projects conducted at ORNL are dedicated to the DOE’s mission, which currently is to use scientific discovery to address national problems such as clean energy and global security. To meet its objectives, four main research areas predominate at ORNL: neutrons, high-performance computing, materials development, and nuclear technologies and systems.
History of ORNL
ORNL was established in 1943 as part of WWII’s Manhattan Project, a United States government-sponsored mission to develop a nuclear weapon before the German Nazi government. The mission succeeded, and the reactor used in that project still stands at ORNL as part of its Graphite Reactor Museum. Over time, the ORNL mission evolved to include more than just nuclear weaponry. Peaceful uses of nuclear technology, environmental science, renewable energy technologies, materials science, medicine, and computing have all been areas of focus at ORNL.
ORNL and Outreach
To share its mission and projects, ORNL participates in community outreach initiatives including employee community service projects, corporate giving to regional companies, honors and awards, tours of ORNL facilities, and a variety of educational programs. Meanwhile, ORNL’s community outreach team distributes news about ORNL’s research to multiple media outlets.
The many educational programs offered by ORNL include STEM Source, a collection of K-12 STEM education materials. Summer, fall, and spring semester internships are open to undergraduate and graduate students, and ORNL offers a number of employment opportunities to post-graduates as well.
Meanwhile, university faculty members can bring up to two students to ORNL to conduct research during the summer, and faculty members from historically black colleges and universities or minority educational institutions can spend up to 10 weeks during the summer conducting research. Finally, ORNL brings its Traveling Science Fair to communities around the country.
ORNL’s Traveling Science Fair
The Traveling Science Fair is housed in brightly decorated trailers that provide insights into various STEM research fields. Each trailer offers hands-on activities and emphasizes career paths related to the specialty areas. Each trailer is accompanied by ORNL staff who perform demonstrations and answer questions. In total, six trailers highlight everything from neutron particles to environmental science.
In the Become a Neutron trailer, for instance, visitors learn about the neutron particles that make up atoms. Neutrons are one of the smallest particles known to humans, but they play a crucial role in studying materials. In this trailer, participants can “enter as an ion” and “exit as a neutron,” following the neutron’s path.
In the Tiny Atoms…Big Science trailer, visitors learn how scientists manipulate atoms in nuclear science research. Inside this trailer, visitors learn about different areas of nuclear science, from safely handling “radioactive” materials using a remote hot-cell operation manipulator to detecting levels of radiation with radiation detection technology.
When visitors enter the Extreme Science trailer, they learn even more about tiny particles, but they also learn about extremely large phenomena, such as a supernova explosion that produces more light than 100 billion stars combined.
In the Get into Green trailer, visitors learn about environmental science, which includes biology, chemistry, and geology. Highlights in this trailer include seeing everyday applications for solar energy as well as observing 3D printing, which has the potential to decrease energy and material costs.
The What’s Your Problem? trailer focuses on supercomputing, which is used to solve many kinds of scientific challenges. In particular, this trailer shows how multiple minicomputers working in parallel can efficiently solve complex problems.
Finally, when visitors enter the Supporting Research trailer, they learn about the many support positions required for scientific work to succeed. Some career fields highlighted in this trailer are facilities and operations management as well as environment, safety, and health management.
So far in 2019, the Traveling Science Fair has visited Nashville, Tennessee; Monroe County, Tennessee; Greensboro, North Carolina; and Hickory, North Carolina. Keep a lookout in your area for more appearances. If you’d like to request a visit from the Traveling Science Fair, you can contact the organizers on their website. This is a great opportunity to bring top-notch STEM learning to your community.