Chattanooga STEM students control microscope 1,800 miles away in L.A.

Christa Payne of the Public Education Foundation, center, joins STEM School students Sarah Goldsmith, left, and Alexis Goldsmith as they chat with Richard Weinberg, a research associate professor at the University of California School of Cinematic Arts, on Thursday, May 14, 2015.

Coca-Cola nearly killed micro-organisms living in Tennessee River water -- then it made them stronger.

That was an observation that Drew Herrmann and Jerod Barbee, 11th graders at STEM School Chattanooga, made in a biology experiment they were inspired to do after using a research-grade microscope 1,800 miles away in Los Angeles.

"We got to play around with the microscope and look at stuff," Barbee said.

The high-speed Internet technology that let students in Chattanooga remotely control a microscope at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts was on display Thursday at a news conference at the STEM school, a magnet high school on the campus of Chattanooga State Community College.

A group of elected officials, technology experts and others gathered in the school's "Fab Lab" and watched images of micro-organisms swimming in "pond scum" on a 4K resolution TV at the front of the lab, along with the live image of USC Associate Research Professor Richard Weinberg who participated by video conference.

Weinberg invented the microscope that incorporates a 4K camera normally used to make Hollywood movies.

The images of the USC laboratory came to Chattanooga via Chattanooga's "gig network," or gigabit-per-second Internet provided by EPB, the city's power distributor.

Chattanooga's high-speed Internet, in turn, was linked to the new "Geni Rack" at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. It's a nationwide network that's 10 to 100 times faster than Chattanooga's that connects 60 research universities, including USC.

The National Science Foundation awarded a $300,000 grant to the Chattanooga-based Public Education Foundation and USC to fund what PEF says is the "first-ever project to leverage the power of gigabit connectivity for K-12 education."

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke briefly turned his back to the crowd to thank Weinberg before praising the technology.

"Thirty years ago, when I grew up here, Chattanooga was a city that was dying," Berke said. "The reason that we're out front now is not because of the gig, but what we're doing with the gig."

PEF's Keri Randolph told the audience that STEM school students are "learning in a way that hasn't been done at a high school before."

STEM school Principal Tony Donen said, "It really gets students excited about school. We really want to engage them in the work."

Biology teacher Shannon Seigle said USC's 4K microscope gave her a new appreciation for the rotifer, a microscopic animal with cilia, or hair, that spins like a wheel to create a vortex that sucks in prey.

"I had seen a rotifer, but not the cilia beating back and forth and not the vortex," Seigle said.

Herrmann and Barbee were inspired to add Coca-Cola to a test tube of water drawn from the Tennessee River behind the STEM school to see what Coke's acidity and sodium content would do. Reproduction of the algae and phytoplankton at first slowed to almost nil, and then bounced back stronger and faster than ever.

"Our results just gave us more questions," Barbee said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at or or or 423-757-6651.