MIDLAND, Pa., April 26, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The origination of life is a subject discussed enthusiastically in many scientific circles. Even students find the topic fascinating.
Recently a group of high school students enrolled in the Lincoln Interactive Cutting Edge Science (CES) program participated in a videoconference with Hans Ziock, a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), to discuss ProtoCells, simple man-made "cells" being created to mimic the most basic functions that meet the definition of "life."
The ProtoCell project at LANL aims to understand the origins of life by simulating the creation of a very rudimentary synthetic cell. Specifically, researchers seek to understand what materials and processes are required to create a functioning and self-replicating primitive cell. Before the chat with Dr. Ziock, CES Club students met with their science advisors in an online chat room to talk about the differences between biological cells and man-made cells and to explore what might be accomplished by creating and researching ProtoCells.
The students eagerly greeted Dr. Ziock with a long list of questions. From the list, it was clear that learning about the ProtoCell project was opening up the students' imaginations to new scientific ideas, such as the concept of artificial life. While many areas of Dr. Ziock's work were discussed, students were especially eager to understand what results the creators of ProtoCells desired. Dr. Ziock described the research his team has been conducting and explained that the creation of ProtoCells would provide a greater understanding of information systems, such as DNA, and what the minimal requirements are for these systems to function.
One compelling question the students explored from various perspectives was, "What are the potential negative environmental or biological effects of the work?" Dr. Ziock assured the students that ProtoCells will be so simple and unsophisticated that they couldn't survive outside a laboratory setting, as far more complex and adaptive biological cells might.
"Largely, students engaged in the conversation at a deep level, showing a surprising complexity of thought," said Caroline Hardman, STEM Program Coordinator for the National Network of Digital Schools, the developer of the Lincoln Interactive online curriculum. "Clearly, students were linking the new information with their previous understanding – leading to some surprising insights and stronger grasp of Dr. Ziock's research. With an approachable demeanor and a clear way of explaining his work, 'Dr. Z,' as he was called, was able to bring complex ideas to a high school audience."
The Cutting Edge Science program provides monthly in-depth discussions with LANL researchers on a wide variety of science, technology, and engineering subjects. In addition to ProtoCell research, other recent topics have included alternative energy research and technologies, particle acceleration and medical isotope production, and computer modeling to predict future climate.
"These are unique research areas, not your typical science class discussion topics," noted Hardman, who moderates each video chat.
Through a cooperative agreement between NNDS and LANL's Technology Transfer Division, Hardman has had the opportunity to conduct filmed interviews with nearly three dozen LANL scientific staff. These interviews are converted into educational videos for Lincoln Interactive's science and engineering curriculum. The Cutting Edge Science Club grew from the video collaboration, and seeks to expand opportunities for students to experience science and engineering in their everyday lives.
Steve Stringer, of LANL's Technology Transfer Division, also participated in the chat with Dr. Ziock. Mr. Stringer is the Principal Investigator of the cooperative project with NNDS, and coordinates with Ms. Hardman to support the Cutting Edge Science Club by introducing lab scientific staff to the program.
In April, the Cutting Edge Science Club chat will welcome Dr. Cynthia Welch, a materials scientist and chemist who works with materials that offer great promise in Fuel Cell technologies. Fuel Cells are electrochemical cells that generate electricity without emitting harmful pollutants as traditional combustion engines do. Fuel Cell technology is already being used in a wide variety of vehicles.
About NNDS and Lincoln Interactive: The National Network of Digital Schools is a 501(c)3 non-profit management foundation, dedicated to providing the highest quality K-12 online curriculum and comprehensive management services to traditional brick and mortar schools, charter schools and cyber schools focused on expanding educational opportunities for students. As a community foundation, NNDS also lends financial support to educational initiatives that expand opportunities for young people. NNDS empowers its partners to expand curriculum options by offering accelerated courses, alternative education and credit recovery courses – as well as developing more effective educational programs for special education students. Lincoln Interactive is also the premier choice for students who learn best from the safety of their own home.
To learn more about Los Alamos National Laboratory, visit www.lanl.gov
Contact: Toni Cicone Craig
SOURCE National Network of Digital Schools