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Our world is full of particles, many of which originate from society’s “engines of creation”. From Appalachia’s coal legacy to microplastics and the nano revolution, particles reveal how we alter the Earth to satisfy our needs. “Particles of Progress” provides an immersive, interdisciplinary education program to promote awareness of the complex ways that society and emerging technologies interact with natural environments for both good and bad.

Midterm Report

Over the past 6+ months, our team has made significant progress towards our goal of creating an immersive, interdisciplinary education program in the Cube. Even before the grant funding dispersed, Matthew Hull and Justin Perkinson met several times during the Spring 2019 semester to get a head start on the planning and ideation. Over the summer, they toured Virginia Tech’s Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center (FMCC) and met with Restoration Biologist Dr. Jess Jones to discuss the project and filming strategies. They also visited the Nanoscale Characterization and Fabrication Laboratory (NCFL) to check out the facilities (including NanoEarth’s multimillion-dollar lab and its nanoscope technology) and also to meet with a drone specialist at the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) to explore a possible partnership.

Particles in Progress

This Fall 2019 semester, we began by developing our narrative considering 3 possible interlinking story threads, namely: 1) the problem of endangered mussels (due in large part to nanoparticle contamination) and what Dr. Jess Jones and conservationists like him are doing to save the animals; 2) the nanoparticle endangerment of coal miners (such as black lung) and the connection of their industry to dying mussels; and 3) the role that nanoscience/nanoscientists play in addressing these dangers at the nanoscale. 

Particles in Progress

We decided to focus our production efforts this term mostly on the first of these threads, i.e. the mussels story. We researched and procured additional filmmaking gear, then tested our gear underwater in the nearby New River and onsite at our eventual production location at the Clinch River (in Russell County, Virginia). Our test shoots helped us better understand both the production and post-production considerations of our work. In the process, we built a special mounting rig for our underwater camera system (a patent disclosure for this device is in preparation) and procured appropriate attire for cold mountain river filming. 

In late October, we had our first live production day documenting Dr. Jess Jones as he repopulated mussels in the Clinch River – combining various above-the-water and underwater shots. For some of this footage, our spatial sound expert Tanner Upthegrove employed a unique underwater “hydrophone” microphone, which we are eager to put to greater use next semester when we resume our mussels production. Four hydrophones were loaned to the project by Mike Roan, Professor of Mechanical Engineering. 

Particles in Progress

In early November, Justin went back to the Clinch River site in order to capture additional environmental shots while autumn leaves were still on the trees. At this same time, Matt led his annual Contaminants of Concern (CoC) workshop, which was attended by nearly two dozen experts from regional water authorities (e.g., Blacksburg/Christiansburg, Salem, Front Royal, Suffolk), the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The annual CoC workshop provides an ideal audience for tailoring our ICAT Cube experience to meet the unique learning objectives of experts working in the fields of environmental protection and public health. Leveraging the ICAT SEED project, content for the CoC workshop is being tailored to sync with our final Cube experience.     

Also in November, we filmed an interview at the NCFL with University Distinguished Professor Emeritus Mike Hochella. Mike is the founding director for Virginia Tech’s National Center for Earth and Environmental Nanotechnology (i.e., NanoEarth), which is one of 16 nodes comprising the nation’s nanotechnology characterization infrastructure. Mike is an acclaimed nanogeoscientist who spoke about his passion for nanoscience, how nanoparticles affect all of our lives, and the role that NanoEarth plays in helping researchers apply nanoscale science and engineering to solve some of the world’s greatest environmental challenges. He helped contextualize some of what is happening to the mussels in the nano-polluted rivers flowing near us. Mike also trained some of his commentary directly to young people, in an effort to inspire their future participation in the Nanoscience field. 

Particles in Progress

Our efforts this semester culminated in a unique exhibition at the Virginia Tech Science Festival, which served as a trial run of sorts for parts of our eventual May workshop. Through Matt’s relationships at the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS), MAAP, and FMCC, we were able to coordinate some great partnerships for our exhibit entitled “Air, Land, and SEE – a Transdisciplinary Exploration of Science, Technology, and Art”. Sarah Macey of Virginia Tech’s Drone Park was on site to discuss the drone cage and the unique benefits it offers both researchers and the public; Tonya Pruitt and her NanoEarth colleagues discussed nanotechnology and the NanoEarth center; and Jess Jones represented the FMCC to discuss their efforts to save endangered mussels. We also projected a looping sequence of our immersive 360° footage on one-half of the Cyclorama screen. Tanner Upthegrove took the lead on Exhibition Day, and Graduate Assistant Jessie Robinson was instrumental in photo-documenting the experience and engaging with the audience - particularly the young audience, who seemed mesmerized by the exhibit. It was a very exciting event attended by at least 1300 people of all ages, and the experience really encouraged our team and helped affirm the value and direction of our project. 

It also helped ignite some publicity for our work, which was featured on Radio IQ / WVTF, “Virginia’s Public Radio”. Justin Perkinson and Dr. Jess Jones were interviewed by New River Valley Bureau Chief Robbie Harris about the team’s project and the Virginia Tech Science Festival Exhibition. Relatedly, Dr. Jess Jones shared some stills of our Cylcorama projection with his leadership at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and there is brewing interest on a regional and potentially (inter-)national level regarding our project. 

Particles in Progress

Going into the Spring 2020 semester, our immediate next steps will be: 1) to continue the mussels story, meeting with Dr. Jess Jones again and understanding how to expand that narrative, and in which formats it would be most interesting/useful to the US Fish and Wildlife Service; 2) to ramp up our coal story and begin to engage our potential characters/interviewees more deeply (namely, Aerosol Nanoscientist Emily Sarver and Mussels Conservation Biologist Andrew Phipps, who is also the son and grandson of coal miners); and 3) to explore how and whether to layer in the nanoscience component into the actual video material (vs incorporating it alongside the footage at the workshop). We have much more work to do in terms of filming, with lots of post-production effort ahead of us. But we are pleased with the progress we’ve been able to make up to this midway point, and we are looking forward to completing our project on time and within budget in May. Hopefully, it will not only serve as a great learning experience for both our K-12 workshop audience and our professional Nanoscientist crowd, but it will also serve as a launching pad for an even bigger project with expanded impact beyond our local community.