How many projects are part lightsaber and part Magic School Bus combined into an awesome science adventure? First, I will build a laser tractor beam on board my BioBus. Then, during normal BioBus school visits, students and teachers from underfunded schools in the Bronx and across the country will perform their own experiments by poking, prodding, and perturbing cells using the tractor beam. I will document and publish the construction process in an open-source science education journal, allowing schools and science nerds around the world to build tractor beams of their own. Every time someone uses the laser tractor beam to hold a bacterium still while they produce a movie of cell division, and then feeds those bacteria to a ravenous amoeba, they will have no other choice but to blurt out, "Awesome!"
With extensive experience building laser tractor beams and as founder of the BioBus mobile science lab, I am the only person in the world prepared to do something this awesome. I started the Cell Motion BioBus two years ago after finishing my Ph.D. at Columbia University. While at Columbia, I built two different laser tractor beam systems (a.k.a. laser tweezers) for my research on cell move, one of which is currently used in the undergraduate physics lab. After graduating with honors and building the BioBus, over 10,000 students at 50 schools across NYC and the country have come aboard our hands-on, high-tech, microscope lab and computer classroom. I've been told the introductory video on the BioBus website, http://www.biobus.org, is pretty awesome, so you might be interested in checking that out.
Do-it-yourself experiments like building an economical laser tractor beam is possible because of breakthroughs in inexpensive, powerful diode lasers (e.g. skylasers.com). Most optics can either be purchased used or donated by our collaborators at NYU and Columbia. I will publish my protocol for building a cheap laser tractor beam via the open-source PASTE project journal (http://www.wepaste.org/journal.html).
Safety is a concern with lasers. To forgo any possibility of student exposure, we will completely enclose the laser beam, visualizing the laser tractor beam on flat screen monitors connected to digital cameras mounted on our microscopes. Thus, actual danger will be completely mitigated while preserving the guise of danger (think big yellow DANGER LASER RADIATION signs), adding to the 'awesomeness' surrounding the project.
Budget for Laser Tractor Beam ($1000 total)
100mW red laser - $399
Laser mount & enclosure - $75
Telescoping lenses assembly - $100
Focusing lens assembly - $50
Adjusting mirrors - $175
Safety goggles - $100
Misc. hardware - $101
The BioBus has proven to be an innovative, effective, and attention getting vehicle for science education. I have been named "New Yorker of the Week" by New York One and have been recognized in regional, national, and international press for this innovative approach to bridging the "science achievement gap." A laser tractor beam will be an awe-inspiring addition to our repertoire of excitement generating yet sophisticated tools and experiments.
Funded by New York City, NY (January 2010)