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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne’s Exemplary Student Research Program inspires girls to join the sciences

Eleventh-grader Shadin Zayyad of Hickory Hills, Illinois, was greatly impressed by the multi-million-dollar facilities at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.

She visited in February as part of a program meant to encourage young people to work in the sciences.

I was beyond awe-inspired by the advanced technology that the scientists use in their experiments,” she said.

But it was Argonne’s staff who left a lasting impression upon Zayyad and the five students who joined her that day.

The most meaningful part of being at Argonne was being surrounded and mentored by inspirational scientists,” Zayyad said. Through this experience, they have truly motivated me to chase after my dreams of becoming a scientist.”

Zayyad, a student of the Aqsa School, was invited to the laboratory on February 28 through its Exemplary Student Research Program (ESRP). The program allows high school students to work with Argonne scientists to prepare a research proposal, design and carry out an experiment, gather and analyze data and draw conclusions from their work. Roughly 360 students have participated in ESRP since it began seven years ago.

Argonne’s Kevin Beyer (left), Olaf Borkiewicz (back, right) and Kamila Wiaderek (front, right) showed Aqsa students and math teacher Ghada Ali how scientists spend their time at the laboratory and the Advanced Photo Source. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Aqsa is a private school located in Bridgeview, Illinois, that serves 240 students from pre-K through the 12th grade — and only girls from sixth through 12th grade. Aqsa is one of 15 Chicago-area public and private high schools that joined the program in 2018.

The visiting students spent the first part of their day at Argonne building lithium-ion batteries at the electrochemistry support laboratory at the Advanced Photon Source, a DOE Office of Science User Facility. They then tested the batteries using a patented electrochemical cell developed by Argonne scientists, while at the same time collecting X-ray scattering data at beamline 11-ID-B.

Assistant chemist Kamila Wiaderek, who helped the girls with their project, said the students were more than formidable.

They were very enthusiastic and had a lot of fun,” she said. They were really quite impressive in terms of the questions they asked. Their curiosity was inspiring. They were very driven. Nothing can stop these girls.”

Eleventh-grader Amatullah Mir, who was riveted by the laboratory’s state-of-the-art facility, said she also enjoyed Argonne’s collaborative atmosphere.

I was surprised at how open and free the lab was,” said Mir, who plans to continue with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in college. I was able to ask questions, handle equipment and talk to advisors very freely and openly.”

Argonne assistant chemist, Kamila Wiaderek, helps teens from Aqsa School participating in the Exemplary Student Research Program to prepare a lithium-ion battery experiment. Conducted at the Advanced Photon Source, students use gloveboxes filled with Argon gas to protect materials like lithium from being damaged by the oxygen in the room. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.

Ghada Ali, the students’ math teacher, who organized the ESRP program at the school and who accompanied the students on the trip, said she was thrilled for them to have a chance to expand their learning beyond the classroom.

This program was a perfect fit for them,” she said.

Meridith Bruozas, Manager of Educational Programs and Outreach at Argonne, agrees. This program illustrates Argonne’s long-term commitment to encourage students to join STEM fields,” said Bruozas. When students understand the research done at a world-class facility like the Advanced Photon Source, they get inspired to help solve tomorrow’s problems.” 

The students’ experiment was simple: Each battery they tested contained chemically similar compounds, but the quality of the material varied in each case, ranging from poor-performing to commercial grade.

The X-ray data that the students collected allowed them to follow changes in the structure of the materials. Such changes were caused by the insertion and removal of the lithium ions into and out of the atomic structure of the materials upon charge and discharge.

Argonne’s primary objective was for the students to gain a fundamental understanding of basic battery operations while also learning how scientists spend their time at the laboratory.

They were able to do everything hands on, including preparing the batteries, placing them on the beamline and recording some early data,” said beamline scientist Olaf Borkiewicz. They were incredibly smart kids.” 

Zayyad said she enjoyed learning more about math’s close relationship to science.

Our teacher, Ms. Ali, and our mentor scientists at the lab were explaining the logistics behind the magic of X-rays, and I was so surprised to learn how closely linked math and science truly are,” she said. But the thing I will remember most about this experience is learning from Kamila. I learned so much about her journey and what she has achieved as a strong female scientist. She has inspired me to work hard for the goals I want to reach and taught me that I can achieve anything in STEM.”

Ali called the battery experiment an amazing cross-curricular project” that united all branches of STEM education. This was the first year her students participated in ESRP, she said, adding that she has no doubt that the experience encouraged them to seriously consider the sciences.

Our students have great potential for working in STEM,” she said, adding that the girls who participated in the program formed the perfect team.”

Argonne’s Lou Harnisch, who coordinates the program for 14 additional teams, said that lessons like this provide a unique opportunity for students to build attitudes, knowledge and scientific thinking.

I repeatedly see students gain confidence and feel empowered,” he said. They are building a special connection to the Argonne research community.”

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.