If you build it, they will understand: Physics expert leads development of customized microscope for experiments

A Grand Valley physics faculty member knew advanced undergraduate students would understand quantum tunneling better if they could carry out experiments rather than rely on abstract representations.

So Josh Veazey, assistant professor of physics, led the effort to develop a customized microscope that students could use in the laboratory to more deeply study quantum tunneling. Students were also involved in the creation of the instrument, including alumnus Randy Lindgren, who Veazey said constructed the original prototype and was part of the design.

Veazey said the equipment, dubbed the "z-axis tunneling microscope," is a cost-effective way for students to study quantum tunneling, which is the process of particles such as electrons ending up on the other side of a barrier that they should not be able to penetrate.

A person smiles while resting an arm on a table next to some laboratory equipment.
Josh Veazey wanted to find a way to enhance the learning experience for undergraduate students studying physics.

"The idea is that it is less expensive and easier to build so it can be used as part of undergraduate labs," Veazey said.

A scanning tunneling microscope is the ideal equipment for this type of research, but it is cost prohibitive for most higher education physics programs to obtain the instrument, Veazey said. This microscope is a simplified version that still helps students by seeing what they are studying in action.

Veazey has been sharing this work with colleagues both in person and through publications such as the American Journal of Physics. Veazey will also welcome colleagues from other schools to GVSU this summer for an immersive session where they will learn how to build and use the equipment in their own undergraduate labs.

This is the first piece of equipment that Veazey has built at GVSU, though he said, "Most experimental physicists have a combination of equipment that they built and that they bought."

A person's hand is seen holding an instrument near wires.

Noah Fuerst, who is majoring in physics, said using this equipment helped open up a new avenue for him in the discipline.

"Using our customized scanning tunneling microscope, we were able to demonstrate qualitative differences in the density of states between metals, semimetals and semiconductors," Fuerst said. "In the end, I was introduced to a new branch of physics I had never studied before and without the equipment, I would have most likely never become as interested in condensed-matter physics as I am today.”