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Elaine Custer

Work with the world’s most powerful neutron generator re-energizes teacher’s passion for physics

Elaine Custer

Elaine Custer works on completing a user’s manual for the TOPAZ single crystal diffractometer. She helped install the diffractometer on the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge National Laboratory during her participation in the Academies Creating Teacher Scientists program administered by the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education.

People who use the old saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” have obviously never met Elaine Custer.

True, Custer describes herself first and foremost as a teacher. A 32-year classroom veteran, she holds bachelors and masters degrees in secondary and science education with specialized training in physics, math and computer science.

But, Custer is also a working physicist literally writing the instruction manual for a key scientific component of the world’s most powerful neutron generator—the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She’s in the second year of a three-year appointment at ORNL as part of the Academies Creating Teacher Scientists (ACTS) program administered by the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education.

During her first year, Custer was introduced to the TOPAZ project, a single crystal diffractometer being installed as an expansion of the SNS facility. TOPAZ allows for the study of crystalline structures at the molecular level, with many of the materials being studied actually smaller than the head of a pin.

“When I first started, I didn’t know the difference between x-ray diffraction and crystal diffraction, although I did know that each was a unique way of examining small structures,” Custer said. “That first year, I was reading schematics, studying linear algebra, solving equations and building equipment.”

In fact, Custer was instrumental in creating the mathematical equations that drive the motors precisely positioning each crystal in the neutron beam for study. Her work was so critical, and successful, that she is currently writing a user’s manual for TOPAZ so new researchers can have all of the information needed to rapidly set up new experiments.

In addition to exposing teachers to the latest in hands-on, scientific knowledge, a principle goal of the ACTS program is to turn participants into even stronger supporters of science education and make them agents of positive change in their local and regional teaching communities.

Here again, Custer’s experience stands out. “When I think back on this past school year, I really had not realized what a change that even the first year of the ACTS program made in me and my teaching—small but important changes,” Custer said. “I feel more energized as a teacher than I have been in a long time. I am an energetic student advocate anyway, but even the best of us have off-years. The ACTS program has been a shot in the arm and my students’ response has been overwhelming.”

Inspired by her work with physics and engineering on TOPAZ last year, Custer set out to create a similar opportunity for her high school students in Karns City, Penn. Focusing on medieval European siege engines, like catapults and trebuchets, Custer had her students research the science behind these machines and then, working from their own designs, construct new versions modified to fire at different ranges that were ultimately put to the test in real-world demonstrations of accuracy. The results were so impressive they were submitted for a 2010 Public Broadcasting System Innovations Award.

The results also are clearly evident in Custer’s students. Over the past three years, 60 percent of her students have moved on to college and majored in science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related fields.

Looking ahead, Custer has another year of her ACTS program and knows she will be teaching for several more years—a passion she shares with her husband—who is also a science educator. A word to the wise for her future students at Karns City High School: Bring your “A-game” to Mrs. Custer’s class, because this teacher is also a serious do-er.