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A taste of college chemistry

MHS chemistry students learn from SMSU?staff in scientific field trip

May 9, 2012
By Jenny Kirk , Marshall Independent

MARSHALL - Marshall High School chemistry students had the opportunity to learn about and experiment with three high-powered instrumentations this past week at Southwest Minnesota State University.

MHS teachers Pam Fier-Hansen and Erik Hall partnered with SMSU professors John Hansen and Jay Brown for the scientific venture.

"We're studying the purity of some aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) samples," MHS sophomore Troy Timmerman said. "We got to use some of the equipment out here. We did infrared spectrum. That was kind of cool."

Article Photos

Photo by Jenny Kirk
Marshall High School chemistry teacher Pam Fier-Hansen, right, demonstrated how to transfer an aspirin sample into individual capillary tubes in preparation for analysis on them. The students, including Adam McVey, left, Darren Coens and Derek Schultz, learned how the capillary tube is used to measure the melting point, which helps determine purity, of the substance in addition to experiencing first-hand how other analysis methods work.

In addition to IR spectroscopy, which deals with the infrared area of the electromagnetic spectrum, or light that has a longer wavelength and lower frequency than visible light, students got familiar with two other instruments, a gas chromatography mass spectrometer (GC-MS), which is used in separating and analyzing test samples, and a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).

"If you've ever had an MRI, that's magnetic resonance imaging, it's the same type of process as the NMR," Fier-Hansen said.

The difference between the two magnetic instruments is what is put inside.

"The NMR is the same technology as an MRI in a hospital. except that instead of putting a body inside, you put chemical samples," Brown said. "But you get the same information."

Brown pointed out that SMSU bought the NMR in 1996, after professor Robert Eliason wrote a National Science Foundation grant, which SMSU matched.

"This instrument is a quarter million dollar instrument," Brown told MHS students. "(Eliason) was here when the college began in 1967. SMSU bought this instrument in 1996 and hired me in 1997 to maintain it. I've been doing it ever since."

Brown received a enthusiastic response when he explained to the students that, while SMSU's NMR is a 200 megahertz (MHz) version, magnets are currently sold up to 1,000 MHz.

"Wow," several students said.

MHS juniors Ashton Smith and Desirae Filter are partners in chemistry class, so the duo also worked together during the SMSU field trip.

"We did the magnetic one and learned what kind of stuff is in there," Smith said.

Chemistry can be pretty complicated, Filter said, but that it could also be exciting.

"I thought it was cool how some of these machines are used in TV shows like 'CSI,'" Filter said.

Brown explained that much of what was analyzed was over the high school students' heads.

"What we're trying to do is get them interested," he said. "Then, if they go to college and major in science, it won't be over their heads."

MHS students made aspirin samples mixed with chemicals and brought them to SMSU to run them. Fier-Hansen had each group begin the experiment by carefully collecting small portions of the samples they brought into the end of a capillary tube.

"You just gently tap it down," Fier-Hansen said. "What you want to do is get most of the sample down there."

Using a magnifying lens, students then watched the next step in the process.

"Watch to see when it starts to melt and when it is completely melted," Fier-Hansen told the MHS students. "It'll go from a misty look, like the steam on your shower window in the bathroom, to look completely colorless."

Fier-Hansen has brought a number of her College in Schools students to the college in the past. It helps that a passion for chemistry run in the family.

"My husband, John Hansen, is the instructor for that class, which is one where the students get college credit and high school credit," Fier-Hansen said. "He writes all their tests and decides what labs and stuff to do. I teach the class, but he comes and visits our class regularily."

Amid an abundance of new SMSU lab equipment, which, according to the MHS students, included "awesome chairs," the MHS students continued to conduct their analysis.

"You're not detecting electrons, you're detecting neurons," Brown said in response to a student's question about the NMR analysis of a sample. "Good question."

Brown clarified that each signal is a different hydrogen atom.

"These are the hydrogens labeled and this is structured aspirin," he said. "Based on these peaks, you can determine yes, that's the structure of aspirin."

Students compared their aspirin sample to Brown's pure sample from Merck, a chemical company.

"They compare what they synthesize to the Merck sample and can find impurities or if the synthesis worked or didn't work," Brown said. "They had to purify their samples after they synthesized it, so they're looking for impurities as well."

Fier-Hansen believes one of the best parts of the trip is the integrated experience the students receive.

"I think they get to see some real world applications of chemistry and they get to see it's not just reactions where you follow a book," she said. "It gives them just a little bit of experience seeing what college labs look like. SMSU just did a remodel. It's also a chance for them to showcase their new instrumentation."

The high school students also took the opportunity to observe posters, reflecting SMSU students' research projects. While in the hallways, Fier-Hansen ironically ran into one of her former College Now students.

"She asked if we were coming over to see the NMR," Fier-Hansen said. "She had just finished her 400 level chemistry test. There were hardly any kids here at 9 a.m. because of finals week, so what are the chances that I'd run into one of my chemistry students?"

Chemistry can be a fascinating and employable field, Brown added.

"If students go to college and major in science, they can use stuff like this every week," Brown said. "The content increases in complexity so that by the time they're seniors, they come out and have been using (the NMR) for four years. And, if they don't go to graduate school, maybe they go to industry. This is a marketable skill, to the pharmaceutical companies and the petroleum companies in particular."



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