WHEN HE SAW a need for real-world examples to help students bridge the gap between theory and application, Materials Science and Engineering Assistant Professor Paul Voyles provided them — by building an online database of real, raw research data.
Voyles teaches graduate-level courses in transmission electron microscopy, a tool for nanometer- to micrometer-scale characterization and metrology of materials and nanostructures. “One of my overall career goals is to promote the use of quantitative methods in electron microscopy; I believe that we should treat the results of microscopy experiments as data, not just qualitative pictures,” says Voyles. “The best way for students to learn quantitative microscopy techniques is to practice them by using real experimental data for homework exercises.”
Available literature provides pictures, but not the underlying data. To give his students experience in working with raw data, Voyles drew from a close source: his own research. He put entries from his own microscopy experiments into an online catalog, then gathered data from willing colleagues as well, creating the Electron Microscopy database (EMdb). Each record contains homework-style exercises as well as a description of the sample, acquisition conditions and calibration information so that users can design their own exercises as well.
“The EMdb fills a huge void once left empty in electron microscopy education by providing accessible, real-life example problems for student learning,” says a colleague.
Voyles also shares the database with researchers and instructors at institutions around the world, fostering a two-way exchange of active research data. Educators can download entire data sets to distribute to their students, and add their own research results, making the EMdb an extensive instruction and learning tool more complete and current than any textbook.
“From my experience, teaching electron microscopy is quite challenging. There are no widely accepted textbooks, and it requires a huge amount of supplementary material,” says one EMdb user. “So having all of these nicely collected and easily accessible from any computer makes a world of difference for learning electron microscopy.”
Since its public launch in 2007, the EMdb has been accessed by nearly 500 users in over a dozen countries. As one colleague said, “In short, Paul has put the UW Department of Materials Science and Engineering on the map as a place that leads innovation in electron microscopy.”