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Merging Emerging Technologies

September 14, 2010

Energy Dispersive Spectrometry spectrum obtained for Siderite, an iron carbonate mineral, illustrating the presence of iron (Fe), carbon (C), and oxygen (O).

As I’ve discussed in previous blogs, Ventura College is home to a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). The SEM has been put to extensive use by classes in Agriculture, Plant Biology, and Biotechnology. It has also been used by Ventura College students working in collaboration with Coastal Marine Biolabs and UCSB. These projects have primarily involved using the instrument to obtain highly detailed images, a task at which the SEM excels.

The SEM at Ventura College, however, has additional functionality; namely, it is equipped with an Energy Dispersive Spectrometry (EDS) detector. This type of detector is used to determine the elemental composition of material. When used together, the SEM and EDS systems can provide the elemental composition of minute particles or small regions of a larger specimen.

SEM image showing specific region of the mineral Siderite probed using Ventura College's EDS detector, the spectrum of which is shown above.

Elemental composition is useful for mineral identification (as was done here), particle analysis (especially in forensic science), and for probing the purity of synthetic materials (especially in nanofabrication).

While Ventura College can readily pursue these first two applications, it’s this last application that I’d like to discuss.

Ventura College recently hosted a delegation from NanoProfessor, Inc., a company that specializes in providing nanofabrication technology to schools world-wide. Using an Atomic Force Microscope (AFM), students can deposit and manipulate tiny amounts of material to fabricate nanoscale arrays for use as molecular markers in DNA probes, biosensors in environmental sensors, or as components of nanobots or scaffolds for synthetic materials.

With Ventura College’s recent success at incorporating emerging technologies such as the SEM and the EDS systems into the classroom, we are hopeful we’ll be able to merge additional technologies, such as nanofabrication, into the curriculum as well. For this to happen, however, we’ll need additional support from the U.S. Department of Education, the Ventura Community College District, and the Ventura College community. For that reason, we’ve submitted a second STEM proposal. We’re hopeful it will be funded and, if it is, I’m looking forward to letting you hear about it here first!

Until such time, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite videos. It is beautiful, haunting, and joyful. For me it signifies science, understanding, and the pursuit of things whose meaning and purpose may be inexplicable, but to which we are drawn, none-the-less. To me, it whispers, “Keep wondering!”


Greening Ventura College

August 20, 2010

Ventura College has received a new greenhouse for Plant Biology and Agricultural Science classes.

Just in time for the heat of the summer, Ventura college has taken delivery of it’s newest teaching tool, a greenhouse. While a greenhouse isn’t exactly a new sight to those who’ve been part of Ventura College’s Agriculture Program (Ventura college was home to three before this one), it certainly is a welcome one.

This is because both the Plant Biology and Agricultural Science Programs need a large, climate controlled environment within which to run their experiments as well as grow and transplant numerous specimens.

An example is the copper toxicity studies done using radishes in the Soil and Water Science class. Conducted over the span of 6-8 weeks, this experiment requires constant vigilance, a time-consuming task to say the least. Without the security and consistency of a greenhouse environment, seedlings are subject to dehydration, weak growth, wind damage, and even theft! With the greenhouse, however, trips to the College every weekend to move plants indoors and outdoors and protect them from harm become unnecessary, leaving time for more important tasks, like devising extra experiments!

Look for this facility to become a major part of the Agricultural Sciences Program renovation. It will provide a suitable working environment for plant propagation, tissue culturing, carbon sequestration, nutrition/fertilizer uptake, water use, and other controlled experiments. It will also provide a nursery for seedlings that are to be used within the orchard and surrounding landscape, particularly native plants and uncommon landscape specimens.

A picture’s worth…how much???

July 10, 2010


A molting soil nematode isolated from the Ventura College orchard.


So, how much is a picture worth? Well, if you have been trying to get digital cameras for your microscopes (like I have), then, $2.5 million.

Thanks to the $2.5 million CCRAA-HSI U.S. Department of Education grant Ventura College received (affectionately referred to as the STEM grant), the Department of Agriculture was able to use a portion of that money to secure digital cameras compatible with their new PrimoStar microscopes. This will allow students in the fields of Agriculture and Plant Biology to document isolates (say nematodes as shown here, pollen, protozoans, or mycorrhiza) and then use the digital stills they obtain for taxonomy or illustration purposes.

Personally, I’ve always been embarrassed by my poor microscopy sketches. I’m a terrible artist and my renderings are quite poor. While I appreciate that careful observation is a fundamental and requisite science skill, artistic talent was never a requirement in my science classes, which is good else I wouldn’t have passed!

Anyway, these cameras also produce videos but this site won’t allow me to post videos (at least not for free). I have a video of a different soil nematode who is also molting so you can see the little critter thrashing around trying to get out of his skinny jeans! If you want to check it out, I have it posted elsewhere.

STEM today, NASA tomorrow

May 6, 2010
Photo credit to Raniero Tazzi

Entrance to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Photo credit to Raniero Tazzi.

The Ventura College STEM program would like to extend a hearty round of congratulations to Rick Peters for qualifying to participate in an upcoming NASA project. In the third week of May, Rick will embark on an all-expense paid trip to Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. During Rick’s three-day stay, he and a group of his peers will work alongside NASA engineers designing robotic rovers.

Rick’s journey actually began months ago when he took up the challenge of completing a series of rigorous, web-based assignments administered by NASA. In order to qualify for the trip to Texas, Rick had to complete the assignments with a grade of 95 or better. Of the students who began the assignments, only seventy-six made the grade, Rick being one of them.

The Johnson Space Center trip is the crowning achievement for students who successfully competed in the National Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) pilot program. This program specifically targets community college students throughout the United States because of the huge talent pool this group of students represents. Just like the Ventura College STEM Program, the NCAS pilot program is designed to encourage community college students to consider a STEM major. As Rick illustrates, Ventura College students are nationally competitive and fully capable of taking the lead in STEM fields.

So, once again, congratulations Rick Peters! The next generation of Spirit and Opportunity await you.

Partners in STEM Success

April 19, 2010

One group of Ventura College STEM students image a coral specimen...

... while the second group eagerly await their turn!

Beginning in March, a group of Ventura College students were invited to participate in a research study involving Ventura College, University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) faculty, and Coastal Marine Biolabs (CMB).

The study seeks to enrich the scientific understanding of both the genetic and habitat diversity of a Pacific coast coral, Stylaster californicus.

In support of this study, Ventura College students use Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) to image the surface features of coral specimens. This state-of-the-art instrument, which is housed and maintained on the Ventura College campus, provides high-resolution images of the coral surface which will be scrutinized to determine the physical characteristics of the coral’s feeding and defensive structures (gastropores and dactylopores).

It is thought that the numerical analysis of these structures, when combined with genetic studies of distant (and presumably different) populations, will help in understanding and protecting these beautiful creatures in California’s waters.

In addition to presenting their results to an audience of Ventura College, UCSB, and CMB faculty and staff, the students participating in this study will reach a global audience by submitting their analysis for publication. So, if you think you’d like to make a contribution to the world, consider a STEM major.

Eight Weeks Short

March 16, 2010

Ventura College students participating in the Introduction to STEM Disciplines class, Spring 2010.

As Spring arrives it brings an end to another semester for Ventura College students participating in the Introduction to STEM Disciplines class. Running only eight weeks, the class introduces students to eight STEM disciplines including soil/plant science, chemistry, mathematics, architecture, geoscience, biology, physics, and engineering.

During the first four weeks, faculty from each of these disciplines present a short talk discussing the research and sub-disciplines within each of these STEM areas. Following the talk, students participate in exercises reflecting current research opportunities within the field.

The Introduction to STEM Disciplines class is really designed to be get students thinking about their own STEM interests. In order to facilitate this, the students are asked to present a talk where they introduce what their field of interest is, the current research and information relevant to that field, and what they might like to do if they pursued that field as a major. This project becomes the focus during the second half of the class, so during the later four weeks students work on their outlines and their rough drafts.

Finally, in the last week of the course, their projects are complete, and the real fun begins! Although pizza and soda are always sure to draw a crowd, that’s not the only reason everyone shows up to hear the student’s talks. The real fun is learning about the myriad interests of Ventura College students. This semester, student topics included artificial intelligence, stem cell research, automotive manufacturing, aeronautical engineering, and binaural hearing.

As we say goodbye to another successful semester, I would like to personally thank all of the faculty and students who participated. If you are interested in enrolling in this class, look for it in the class schedule listed as IDSV02, Intro to STEM Disciplines. Here’s looking forward to Fall 2010!

As the Dust Settles

February 6, 2010

Ventura College's AA-building before the remodel....

...and then after the remodel.

Winter break is a welcome chance for students and faculty to relax, but lots of work still happens while we’re away. In fact, a lot of the work over this break was related to Ventura College’s STEM program.

The STEM program offers support to students pursuing STEM majors. This support comes in many forms, some of which are obvious, such as textbook loans, transfer counseling, and internship opportunities. Other forms of support, although of equal importance, may be less obvious. This type of support includes strengthening Ventura College’s STEM courses by way of new research equipment purchases, curriculum revisions, and facility enhancements.

One of the biggest enhancements to Ventura College’s STEM facilities took place in the AA building. Home to programs including Agriculture, Construction Technology, Anthropology, and Forensics, the AA building was cozy but out-dated. The Winter break remodel corrected that by dramatically increasing storage, expanding counter-top space, and expanding electrical and data-sharing capacity. Additional modifications enhanced access to disabled persons and increased student capacity within the classrooms.

All of these enhancements serve to expand the opportunities available to faculty and students conducting basic research in STEM fields. By taking this approach, Ventura College has taken a leadership role in facilitating the success of STEM students. If you are interested in a STEM major, let Ventura College help you gain the advantage you need. Enroll NOW!