Thomas A. Pierce, Jr., a senior at Norfolk State University

Thomas A. Pierce, Jr., a senior at Norfolk State University, a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) intern and a former Jefferson Lab BEAMS participant, returned to JLab recently to take part in a National Educators' Workshop as an invited research presenter.
(Photo courtesy of NIST)

Former BEAMS student revisits Jefferson Lab; sets goal on career in science, technology

The first groups of students to participate in Jefferson Lab's Becoming Enthusiastic About Math and Science (BEAMS) program are graduating from college and entering the workforce.

Since the spring of 1991, more than 530 classes of sixth graders, many from Newport News' inner city schools have attended this innovative, week-long math and science immersion program developed by Jefferson Lab.

"I've often caught myself wondering how they are doing," says Stacy Ring, Science Education technician at the Department of Energy's Jefferson Lab. "Have the students benefited from the program? Did it help motivate them to do better in school or stimulate their interest in math and science? Did it raise their awareness of the many opportunities available to them?"

The question was raised in late October when more than 60 teachers and professors converged on Jefferson Lab as part of a National Educators' Workshop. A participant asked about the impact of BEAMS on its students and the response, "I was in BEAMS" came out of the throng.

The voice belonged to Thomas A. Pierce, Jr., a senior at Norfolk State University who will graduate with his Bachelor's degree in Computer Integrated Design Technology in December 2003. As a sixth grader at Huntington Middle School, Pierce attended BEAMS. He fondly recollects the thrown racquetball shattering after being frozen in liquid nitrogen, the blown-up balloon shriveling as it was dunked into the same cryogenic liquid, and the coordination it took to perform the Slow Bike Race. But even stronger are his memories of the "really great people" he met at JLab and the excitement of going someplace new. "Everything here just seemed so exciting and fun. I really connected with it," he said.

"Taking learning outside the classroom adds another dimension of practicality and application, making it easier to relate with the real world," Pierce added, "and BEAMS did that [for me]." On the other hand, he found the conventional classroom environment serious and strict, and at times, difficult.

He returned to Jefferson Lab for a BEAMS mentor experience in 9th grade, was a member of CHROME, the Cooperating Hampton Roads Organization for Minorities in Engineering, and participated in a variety of science and technology clubs and activities throughout middle and high school. He cited "a bunch of early experiences" for developing his interest in and desire to pursue math and science: BEAMS, his family's regular excursions to museums, building Lego models, and his mother giving him the book, "Tell Me How, Tell Me Why." He grew up asking questions and being encouraged to dig for answers.

Now this young man is on the brink of a challenging, high-tech career. He can already be proud of a resume dotted with impressive internships and research projects. He has conducted a broad range of metallurgical research for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), including metallography, Rockwell Hardness measurements, inspecting and assembling equipment, digital microscopy, heat treating, sample preparation, tensile testing, powder metallurgy, etching and engraving. As an intern he's examined failed joint fractures between copper tubing, solder and the intermetallic layer, the recrystallization and grain growth of aluminum alloy for tubular car frames, and was a member of the World Trade Center investigative team to examine the steel beams that collapsed. Pierce is listed among the authors of a 2002 collaborative research paper titled, "Instrumented Consolidation of Amorphous Powders," and most recently he performed research on bismuth that serves as a shielding material for a research reactor controlling spurious neutron scattering.

He is eyeing two research projects he hopes to pursue after he finishes his coursework in December, and plans on pursuing a Master's degree in materials science and engineering. "I'm not ready to rule anything out," Pierce said of possible career opportunities. He is intrigued with the integration of smart materials, the design of small components and quality control. He wants challenging, fulfilling research projects. "I want to make a difference but most of all, I want to be happy with my career choice," Pierce noted. "Money is not my primary driver."

What advice does he offer middle and high schoolers? "Take math and science classes seriously," he said. "I know math isn't always easy, but in a few years you will appreciate the effort you put into it. Challenge yourself; it may be uncomfortable at times but in the end it will be worth it. And try new things, if you don't at least try new things you'll never know what you can do."

"Take on challenges," he continued. "Even if it doesn't turn out as planned, you will still have learned something just by trying. I was really nervous before I started my internships and research projects, but I decided to just jump head first into them. It was amazing! I've learned so much. I got over a lot of my nervousness and I deal with it much better now."