By John B. Snyder, Watervliet ArsenalMay 1, 2018
WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. -- Army scientists and mechanical engineers at a large caliber research and design center located on the Watervliet Arsenal are accustomed to discoveries. After all, they have been supporting the Army's manufacturing center here since the 1800s. But a recent discovery has some scratching their heads, because there is no process in place to replicate the positive findings.
During a statewide science and technology conference in March, Schenectady High School senior Matthew Muschett took first place for his research in solar cells. Considering that there were about 450 middle- and high-school students from throughout New York competing, his accomplishment is truly noteworthy.
Nevertheless, the fact that Matthew won his division is not the discovery this article is talking about.
The true discovery came about from the process the team of Ph.D.s at the Army's Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center's (ARDEC) Benét Laboratories experienced en route to Matthew's academic excellence.
"When we (ARDEC-Benét Labs) were approached last summer by the Albany Medical College's Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP) coordinator about working with a high school student to better motivate him toward future opportunities in science and technology, we wanted to help but we did not have a formal internship program to offer," said Dr. Jeffrey Warrender, a physicist with ARDEC-Benét Labs. "So, I got with two post-doctoral research fellows who were working with me on other projects and we came up with a potential project for Matthew, which the Benét leadership quickly approved."
ARDEC-Benét Labs has a long history of supporting internships for college students, as well as inviting high school science students to tour its research facility, but it did not have an established internship for high school students, such as what the Albany Medical Center had asked for, Warrender said.
"All of us here have a passion for critical research, especially when it applies to Army weapon systems, but we thought that it would be kind of cool if we could inspire just one student to become a future scientist," Warrender said. "Through a process of discovery, we learned how to become a coach, teacher, and a mentor to Matthew as we led him through three months of project design and research."
Dr. Philippe Chow, a research fellow with ARDEC-Benét Labs, said that in addition to his learning to become a coach and mentor, he also became a better communicator.
"Although Matthew came highly motivated and with a basic understanding of scientific research, at the end of the day he is still a high school student, albeit a very bright one," Chow said. "And so, the takeaway for me in regards to Matthew's internship is that as doctorate-level researchers we must learn to translate our highly technical work and jargon into terms that any audience we engage will better understand."
Matthew said that he has been interested in science since the second grade and has been part of the STEP program since the eighth grade.
"What I was hoping to get out of this internship was to get an experience in multiple different science fields," Matthew said. "Nevertheless, the experience I got from Benét is very different and more positive from what I had imagined."
"Prior to my internship, I had a negative view of government research and that was a bad mindset to have," Matthew said. "Working with Army researchers was not what I expected."
Warrender said he can understand where Matthew is coming from.
"Working with Matthew showed us that there is a disconnect, because we encourage students to pursue careers in science, but they may not have an understanding about what working in a lab looks like," Warrender said. "It was gratifying to provide that experience to Matthew, to enable him to see how the concepts he has learned in class apply in the lab."
ARDEC-Benét provided the hypothesis for how altering a silicon surface through laser-induced topography could be applied to photovoltaics. This required Matthew to demonstrate a process to increase the efficiency of solar cells, which could eventually lead to lower-cost solar panels.
In preparation for the competition, Matthew said he was coached by the ARDEC-Benét Lab mentor team to help him shape the content of his presentation to fit into the allotted time and to the audience he would present to.
Matthew added that an additional goal he had was to spread the interest he has in science to other high school students with the hope of getting more students to follow in his footsteps.
Although Matthew took first place in the competition, suffice it to say that ARDEC-Benét Labs, through a process of discovery, found that being a coach, teacher, and a mentor may also impact the future of Army research and science.
Just maybe, Matthew's goal of inspiring other students to consider a future in research will also inspire Army leadership to continue with the discovery and the road that Matthew has blazed.