Alex Weeks, an Edison Middle School student, spent hours in her school’s technology lab designing a blue-and-white plastic 3D model of nuclear particle accelerator equipment.
Weeks was at the downtown Janesville offices of SHINE Medical Technologies on Thursday afternoon, waiting on deck as one of several students who had built models in a contest SHINE launched six months ago with the Janesville School District.
The company wanted middle and high school students to design a prototype for its Illuminator Award, an employee award of excellence.
Weeks’ model—a set of interlocking plastic pieces she produced using a 3D printer—had a tube that fit a small laser pointer.
Slid in place inside the model, the laser pointer is supposed to replicate the business end of SHINE’s particle accelerator technology: a beam of super-accelerated, blue-purple plasma that zaps a target of liquid, low-enriched uranium to create medical molybdenum-99.
Nuclear physicists at SHINE who end up with Weeks’ model on their desks can remove the laser pointer from the model and use it for whatever purpose they want.
Likely, it would be good for pointing out something scientific.
Weeks and several other students have worked since last fall to design 3D models SHINE could use for its award. Under parameters laid out in the contest, the awards had to be a certain size and dimension, incorporate SHINE’s particle accelerator technology, and feature a splash of creativity and usefulness.
“We didn’t want the typical glass star that gathers dust on your shelf. We wanted to create something fun—not boring,” SHINE Vice President Katrina Pitas said.
Cheryl Peterson, SHINE community employment and engagement manager, said “a light bulb went on” last year that a contest might get students interested in the medical radioisotope technology SHINE plans to use.
The project also incorporated science, technology, engineering and math learning for a unique purpose, she said.
Edison Principal Jim LeMire and technology education teacher Carl Schenzel said the project immersed the students in problem-solving, creativity and teamwork.
This spring, SHINE likely will break ground in Janesville on the first fully integrated medical moly-99 manufacturing and distribution plant built in the U.S. in decades.
By 2021, the company hopes to ramp up operations and begin to grab a large piece of the domestic and international market for moly-99, a material that illuminates body tissue and bones in tests for cancer and heart disease.
The students had some early failures on their project, said Edison eighth-grader Aiden VanTuyl, Weeks’ partner.
He said an S-shaped prototype they designed got stuck in the 3-D printer’s scaffolding and became a misshapen, chewed-up wreck of plastic filament. VanTuyl and Weeks had to scramble to right the ship, spending hours after school working up a new design.
Over several snow days this week, Weeks’ and VanTuyl’s crew put the final touches on their models and presentations. They were anxious that the weather cancellations would prevent them from readying their final pitch to a panel of seasoned nuclear engineers.
No pressure, middle-schoolers.
“Welcome to the real world,” LeMire told Weeks and VanTuyl, delivering them a dose of playful tough love. “It’s the real world of deadlines.”
Weeks and VanTuyl did fine. Their project won first prize in the contest Thursday.
Their reward? The pair will get to tour SHINE’s test and demonstration facility and see the nuclear particle accelerator technology that inspired their 3D mock-up.
Tracy Radel, lead nuclear engineer on SHINE’s project, asked the two students to explain how 3D printing technology works. Radel said she had never used a 3D printer.
LeMire said it’s humbling for him to see students learn to use technology their parents might not understand.
“It’s a younger person’s game,” he said. “You’ve just got to give them the framework of the experience and stand back and watch it put the hook in them.”
VanTuyl said if he had to pick an occupation tomorrow, he probably would want to design and build machines.
Weeks said she is interested in engineering or architecture.
She said the SHINE project marked a turning of the tide in her life.
“During the project, my parents had to do my chores,” she said. “I was too busy with my work on this.”