AFRL revives Scanning Electron Microscope Educators program

  • Published
  • By Erica Harrah
  • Air Force Research Laboratory
WRIGHT- PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, Materials and Manufacturing Directorate has recently reinstated the Scanning Electron Microscope Educators, or SEMEDS, program, which was paused in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The after-school program gives area middle and high school students a rare opportunity to experience firsthand what it's like to use a $500,000 Scanning Electron Microscope, or SEM, to explore a wide-variety of unique and everyday specimens.

A partnership between AFRL’s Materials Characterization Facility, or MCF, and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s Educational Outreach Office, the SEMEDS program has hosted 6,400 students since its beginning. 

“The Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Educational Outreach Office has been involved with the SEMEDS program since 1993,” said Kimberly Stultz-Dehart, SEMEDS program manager. “It is our goal to show children of all ages that math and science are fun and encourage them to pursue careers in STEM related career fields. The outreach programs allow students to see the many different career fields available and SEMEDS, specifically, gets the students hands-on experience with an exciting and memorable STEM field. We aim to inspire students to continue their studies in STEM subject areas and to consider STEM careers.” 

During each two-hour session, students received a briefing from AFRL scientists and engineers who use this equipment in their research. 

“By involving current AFRL scientists and engineers in initiatives like SEMEDS, we hope to stimulate interest and cultivate talent among high school students, potentially inspiring them to become the next generation of scientists and engineers who could contribute to AFRL's mission,” said Dr. Sabyasachi Ganguli, senior research engineer and MCF program manager. “This kind of outreach not only benefits the students by exposing them to STEM disciplines but also serves the strategic goal of developing a skilled workforce pipeline for AFRL.”

The briefing gives students some background on how SEMs work, and the scientific concepts behind it as well as typical careers and training needed in the microscopy field. After the briefing, they were given the opportunity to see the SEM in action.

“We try to make sure that the samples viewed with the SEM are something that a kid will recognize and be able to relate to,” said Michael Velez, a materials research engineer at AFRL and SEMEDS volunteer. “For example, one of the samples that they view is a piece of Velcro. This will lead into a little bit of talk about biomimicry, where scientists can gain inspiration from nature, and how Velcro was inspired by the burrs that you get on your clothing.”

During the hiatus, updates were made to the briefing and the samples.

“The briefing for the younger kids isn’t as science heavy, since they don’t have any basic foundations in physics or chemistry,” said Velez. “For the high school kids, I do include a bit more in-depth science, so that they can see how it relates to what they are studying. I also talk about the importance of materials science and give them an overview of what a lab like ours does.”

Chris Henson, a teacher at Baker Middle School in Fairborn, and his 7th grade science class were some of the most recent participants in the program. Henson said he learned about SEMEDS through the email updates sent by the educational outreach office about SEMEDS and other programs that are offered. 

“I started taking kids over five years ago,” said Henson. “I took three groups for three years, and then we had to stop for a while because of COVID. So, this is my first group back in a while.” 

Henson said that before participating in the program, students are asked to write an essay about why they want to attend SEMEDS and what questions they might want to ask the scientists and technicians. 

“We can’t always do hands-on things in the classroom,” said Henson. “When the kids realize that they have the opportunity to work with this expensive machine, they start to get excited. That’s not something you can say every other day for students at this level. It gives them a sense of belonging and makes them start to believe that this is something that maybe they can do one day.”

Clayton Schommer, an undergraduate biological sciences major at Wright State University, who also attended the SEMDS program when he was in the 7th grade, has now come full circle as a volunteer with the program. Schommer became reacquainted with the program when he accepted an internship with AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate’s Biomaterials Branch.

“I still have photos from the program at my house,” said Schommer, referring to the opportunity students have to print out snapshots of the samples they are viewing with the SEM at various levels of magnification. “As a volunteer, I want to do everything I can to give the kids going through the program the same experience that I had, to kind of give them a boost and really get them thinking about science. As a kid, you don't really think of science as a career option. Until you see actual scientists in action, you don't really know what the job is.”

SEMEDS sessions are offered twice a month. Each session can accommodate up to 18 students and up to two sessions are offered each month. Schools interested in participating in the program should contact Kimberly Stultz at Wright Patterson Air Force Base’s Educational Outreach Office at or call 937-656-2273 for more information.

About AFRL
The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space, and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 12,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit