Blessed Trinity Secondary School’s science department chair Michael Weber (left) and aspiring astronaut Tomaz Rinne stand with Julia Dunder, holding a RaDI-N2 bubble device Photo courtesy of Maria Orrico-Gamble

Niagara students team up on Hadfield experiment

  • March 16, 2013

Through Let’s Talk Science’s RaDI-N2 & You project, students from more than 300 Canadian classrooms, including three in the Niagara Catholic board, are collecting data on exposure rates to radiation neutrons in conjunction with Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.

“We wanted to come up with a project that would bring space exploration directly into the classroom,” said Scott Taylor, education specialist at Let’s Talk Science. “We have found that allowing classrooms to compare their data with astronaut Hadfield while he is completing the research project has gotten both students and teachers really excited about science.”

Founded in 1993, Let’s Talk Science is a nationwide charitable organization that seeks to engage students by providing hands-on learning opportunities to inspire a passion for science.
Students and Hadfield — who is currently orbiting the Earth on the International Space Station — are using the Canadian designed RaDI-N2 bubble detector to conduct this experiment.

Essentially the device is a test tube, about eight cm long and one cm wide, containing a special gel which traps the neutrons inside visible bubbles. After the designated time period, 24 hours for most classes involved, students count the existing bubbles and then pressurize the tube to reset it. The process takes between half an hour and two hours.

“Basically all you do is you carry it with you or you leave it in your desk for whatever time period and it just sits there,” said Michael Weber, chair of Grimsby, Ont.’s Blessed Trinity Catholic Secondary School’s science department. “If a neutron from whatever the source is, I’m going to say outer space, hits it then it absorbs that neutron and it creates a bubble in the actual gel inside the tube.”

Weber said these neutrons, most of which come from the sun and solar flares, have the ability to penetrate the skin by two or three cm which can then mutate cells causing diseases such as cancer. Niagara students team up on Hadfield experiment

Weber’s Grade 11 physics class is one of three from the Niagara Catholic District School Board taking part in the project. The other two classes are from Notre Dame College School in Welland and Niagara Falls’ St. Michael Catholic High School.

Participants collect data on the rate of exposure to the neutrons here on Earth which can be compared to the rate of exposure in outer space, where Hadfield is also conducting research with a RaDI-N2 device.

Students chart their results and upload them to where Hadfield’s data can also be found.

The tube at Blessed Trinity averages about one bubble per day whereas Hadfield’s device collects about 130 over the same period.

While the purpose of Hadfield’s research is to determine if astronaut’s require more protection from exposure to neutron radiation, the goal for students is inspiration — something at least one Blessed Trinity student is feeling.

“This year was my first year in physics and it really opened my mind to the whole world,” said Tomaz Rinne. “What really excites me about it is the fact that the neutron is so small and space is so vast and the fact that it is causing a bubble in something so small here. It just kind of boggles my mind that there is so much of it in space.”

Rinne is now looking at studying aerospace or chemical engineering after high school with the ultimate goal of becoming an astronaut himself.

“I knew there was solar flares and solar radiation in space but I had no idea that there was that much to that extent,” said Rinne, 16. “It’s eye opening to me but it isn’t really deterring me from my dream. I’ve always had a dream of being an astronaut because I think that would be the coolest job in the world.”

It’s that kind of excitement about future careers which keeps Weber looking for unique learning opportunities like RaDI-N2 & You.

“A lot of the kids, they’re looking for a career and if all we do is show them what’s in the textbook that’s not going to spark their interest as to what they could do for a career. If I can excite kids about that then I think I’ve done my job.”

Response to the project at Blessed Trinity has been so positive that Weber is now looking at continuing the initiative.

“When students show an interest I try to pursue that interest,” said Weber.

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