LAHS electron microscope opens new visual world for students

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Los Altos High Biology Honors instructor Meghan Straz assists student Zosia Stafford with the school’s new electron microscope last week.

Students at Los Altos High School can now examine objects in a completely new way with the addition of an electron microscope to the school’s science department.

The electron microscope is capable of much higher magnification compared with the typical science classroom’s light microscope. The new device can magnify an object 20,000 times, while the light microscope can only increase it 400 times.

“This is a cutting-edge way to do observation,” said Greg Stoehr, head of the science department at Los Altos High. “It is allowing students to have a college-level experience in a public high school.”

Another perk of the equipment, Stoehr said, is that it is easy enough for anyone to use. An electron microscope typically requires a technician.

Stoehr said students in all science classes are using the microscope. Students in the forensics class can examine hair fibers, biology students can observe leaf structures and physics students can view the texture of an object and determine how it affects momentum.

“It’s a universal tool,” he said. “Most of the instruments we purchase for the school are class or subject based. But this microscope can be used in all classes.”

Light microscopes, the prevailing equipment used in most high school classrooms, are a “400-year-old technology,” said Stoehr, adding that they help magnify objects that are very small, “but you can’t distinguish them well.”

“The electron microscope allows students to look at things that they cannot get from a light microscope,” he said. “It opens up a new visual world for the students.”

The electron microscope is connected to a computer, enabling students to capture digitally the magnified objects. Mastering the microscope takes five minutes, Stoehr said.

For some students, using the microscope during class isn’t enough – they also have access during lunch or after school. Some students use it to examine objects out of curiosity, others use it for research projects.

“It is opening up a new level of magnification,” Stoehr said. “This is definitely a way to step up our science program.”

The microscope is one step in a series of moves aimed at expanding the school’s science program, Stoehr said. The Mountain View Los Altos High School Foundation provided funding for the microscope. Next year, Stoehr said, the school plans to add a research class to its curriculum.

“We wanted to make it a focus of our funding last year,” said Laura Roberts, executive director of the foundation. “We wanted to provide a lot of innovation in the classroom with state-of-the-art science lab equipment, especially following on the heels of the new science classroom construction.”

Of the $1.5 million grant the foundation raised for the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District last year, approximately 40 percent is tagged for discretionary spending. Funding for science program upgrades came from those funds, Roberts said.

In addition to providing students with a college-level experience, the new tools are preparing them for the next level of research and innovation, according to Stoehr.

“We are striving to give students the foundation support for a strong science background,” he said.

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