Can Cell Phones Fry Your Brain? Ask Student Scientists!

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 9 years old.

Teenagers love to sleep with their cell phones under their pillows.

Knowing this, high school chemistry teacher Tanya Katovich from Palatine, Illinois, decided to leverage it as a way to get her students interested in conducting a science experiment. "For a student, the second you bring up a cell phone, that’s fascinating to them," she says.

Connecting to a radioactivity lab clear across the globe -- a Geiger counter in Australia -- Katovich's students decided to find out whether their cell phones are frying their brains.

"I want to give [my students] access to instruments that I’ll never be able to afford in my classroom," she says.


I asked Katovich, who teaches at Schaumburg High School, her what her students found out at the recent Cyberlearning Tools for STEM Education conference. Watch the video below, and read the entire transcript at end of the post.

I’ve been teaching chemistry for my entire career and I have a big interest in bringing stem curriculum into the classroom.

My experience with cyber learning started pretty much as a result of being a teacher’s fellow at Northwestern, and I went to a leadership conference and saw Kemi Jonah from Northwestern speak and he talked about using remote labs and, to me, that was fascinating because a huge interest of mine is bringing real life instruments into the classroom. I look around my classroom and I see my kids working with beakers and graduated cylinders, and in the real world they’re working with instruments that are $100,000.  And as I send them off to college, I think they’re not really getting what they’re supposed to be getting out of their public school education.  I want to give them access to instruments that I’ll never be able to afford in my classroom and so if my school district, which is a very good school district, can’t afford them, how are rural school districts and inner city schools going to ever have the ability to get their kids hands-on experience with this stuff.

So at this leadership conference the idea of remote labs came up, and the concept behind it is students from anywhere around the world could go online and they could access an instrument remotely. So they’re able to pick the variables that they want to change. They’re able to set the parameters of the experiment and go through the process of scientific design by really accessing the instrument.  It’s not a virtual lab.  It’s not a canned lab.  It’s not a simulation. You can see the instrument moving.  You can watch your experiment running, and the kids are fascinated by it. So my students right now are working on a radioactivity lab where they access a Geiger counter in Queensland, Australia.  And what they’re studying is actually nuclear chemistry and the effects of gamma rays and beta particles and alpha particles, but we do it under the subtext of is your cell phone going to fry your brain.  And so for a student, the second you bring up a cell phone, that’s fascinating to them.

Now a cell phone doesn’t release gamma radiation. It actually works using microwave radiation, but what they learn is that all electromagnetic radiation acts in a similar way, that intensity if proportional to one over distance squared, which is a very fancy mathematical way of saying the farther you step away from a source of radiation the less intensity you’re going to receive.  So we start off by asking the kids “how many of you sleep with your cell phone under your pillow?”  And all of the kids raise their hands and as our lessons go on and we learn about half lives and different types of radiation and our whole nuclear chemistry curriculum, they go online eventually and they run the experiment.  They set up the scientific design by themselves at home.  We do not do it in the classroom, which provides a lot more time to work on other curriculum.  They run their labs after school, at night, three in the morning, whenever they want to, and come back the next day.

We do peer review, which is something that you rarely ever get in a high school classroom where they actually get to collaborate and talk about their results and decide “was your data better than mine?  What did you try to work with?  What were your variables?  How many distances did you select?  And maybe why was yours better than mine?”  There’s not one right answer, but the students really get a chance to talk about maybe where the weaknesses were in their experimental setup.  Then they go back home again.  They work on a second run of the experiment and what we’re seeing is their scientific design dramatically improves.  The fact that they got to do peer review and the fact that they have a lot of time at home, not a 50-minute class period, but a lot of time at home to think about how to design a really good experiment.  We’ve seen the proof through studies that they’re picking more distances to check.  They’re looking at greater time periods.  They’re running more trials, and they’re doing better science.

So the fact that they can access this Geiger counter remotely and watch it online is just even a greater benefit, because they can’t believe that this thing is in Australia but yet they can watch it and they’re controlling it and the idea is if we can do that, why can’t we do it with other instruments like the ICP that we are working on, which is an inductively coupled plasma optical admissions spectrometer.  That’s our second instrument that we’re trying to get online right now and you can test for concentrations of trace metals and solutions.  So if you had a water sample and wanted to know the parts per million of lead in it, you could find that out using this instrument but again, it’s $100,000 instrument that you’ll find in any analytical chemistry lab that you’ll never have in a high school classroom. So it’s unbelievable that we could get kids to access this remotely and work it robotically and pick all the variables that they want to test.

The nice thing about what I just did a few weeks ago with my physical science kids, we actually developed a new unit that we wanted to put in.  I never taught nuclear chemistry to my physical science kids before but the opportunity to use this online lab, this remote lab, was almost too good to pass up.  So we brought in some curriculum for them to learn, things I had mentioned like half-life and various types of radioactive particles and how powerful they are, and that part was pretty easy.  And then what makes the online lab nice is it really didn’t take time out of my classroom because they have the ability to go home and work on this at whatever time of the evening or morning that they want.  The kids ran their labs at home.

So I’m not using my class time to do it.  I did use class time for peer review and then after they came back and did a second run of the lab, we saw tremendous improvement in their scientific design and then had a chance to sort of talk about what did we learn from this?  What is the relationship between intensity of radiation and distance?  And the outcome was awesome because we started this off with the question of “is my cell phone frying my brain?” and all of those students that had slept with their cell phones under their pillow and thought nothing had been wrong with it, not only are they not doing that anymore, they’re putting the cell phone as far away from them as possible.  They’re not wearing their cell phone in their pockets anymore.  If it’s the girls, they’re putting it in their purses.  If it’s the guys, they’re turning them off until the use them.

And even though microwave radiation is a non-ionizing form of radiation, which is different than gamma radiation, the results of it still are unknown. The Journal of American Medical Association just published a study talking about the effects of cell phone radiation for amounts of time in 15 minutes or excess, and there are effects on your brain related to glucose and they don’t know the consequences of that and they may not know that for a very long time.  But I think what my kids got out of it, for now it is safer to get the cell phone away from your brain, probably not to use any type of device that’s going to work wireless and be very, very close to their brain, in their ear, so I think that it was a topic that caught their interest and they really seemed to enjoy what they were learning.

Things that I would do to kind of reassure a teacher that it’s okay to try some new things, first, there’s a lot of people like me that are out there that will teach webinars for free to them on how to use this curriculum and how to use remote labs, so I can walk them through it in less than an hour and say this is how you access it.  This is how you use the curriculum.  This is how you embed it into your own curriculum and it doesn’t take that much time outside of what you’re doing.  For me, I would really push them to try it because my kids were so fascinated by it, and it’s exposure to instruments that they’ll never see.

If we really want to prepare high school kids for college, wouldn’t it be great if they had access to these instruments before they got into the real world and had to get a job?  I don’t think that beakers and graduated cylinders are preparing them for real life.  I want them to have skills that can go into a career.  So if that’s really what we’re trying to gain out of a high school education, you have to think outside the box and if we can get instruments all over the world set up and we can share them for free, well we just beat the biggest financial burden that there is, and that’s school districts don’t have money to buy this stuff.  And even if they did have a lot of money each school is not going to be able to buy these instruments by themselves.  So we need to work together and figure out what labs would best benefit our kids and we’re doing it for them. It’s not about us.  You have to be willing to try and change and there are people that want to help make it easy on them.

My advice for teachers that are investigating the possibility of looking into cyber learning tools is do not be afraid. There are people out there that can help you and there are easy ways to integrate it into your current... One of the things I’m really looking forward to coming out from the iLab Network is the introduction of the ICPOES, which is a very fancy instrument that’s used in an analytical chemistry lab.  That was something I had access to in college and I would just love to have the possibility of this very, very expensive instrument in my kids’, maybe not their hands but in their reach.

Looking at some of the other things at the cyber learning conference has really opened my eyes to a lot of simulations, a lot of ways to visualize chemistry, and the connections that I’ve seen here with different people who have remote telescopes and have virtual labs.  It’s unbelievable.  I can see myself walking through a chemistry lab, it’s not really me but I can see all the chemicals on the shelf and I can actually reach out in the virtual lab and pick them up and do experiments up, open-ended experiments where someone’s not telling me a cookbook way to do something.

My work at Northwestern this past summer was as a teacher fellow and we were brought in to try and create curriculum for the ICPOES, which is an instrument that can test for trace metals in solutions.  For instance, if I had a water sample and it had a certain amount of lead in there, I could use this instrument to find out if it had five parts per million or fifteen parts per million, if it exceeds EPA standards, or if it’s safe.

So the curriculum that I wanted to create deals with the mystery of Maria and Maria is a very healthy 28-year old woman, as far as she knows, until one day she starts developing very, very serious health problems, which include kidney problems.  And as the scenario unfolds, and as the kids learn about the curriculum, they learn some things about heavy metals and heavy metal poisoning.  What happens when you’re exposed to arsenic or chromium six?  How about mercury or lead?  And they’re learning some things about heavy metals in relation to the environment. Many of you have seen Erin Brockovich, the movie which is about chromium six being basically dumped into a city’s water system and what happens because of that.  And as this comes about, the kids are able to use the ICP to test this mystery sample of lake water that Maria has been exposed to because she swims in Lake Michigan. And the kids are allowed to pick many variables and they don’t’ usually have the opportunity to do this in a cookbook-style lab in a normal classroom.

They get to choose standards.  For instance, if someone thought maybe it was mercury that was in the water that was hurting her, they could say I would like to test these standards on the instrument, maybe pick five parts per million mercury, and ten, and fifteen, and twenty parts per million.  And they also get to pick wavelengths at which the electrons are going to be excited at and a lot of this is high level chemistry things that my kids really, they learn about but they don’t get the chance to experience it with a real instrument.  And as it turns out, they’re able to try and figure out what is the metal, what is the concentration, and figure out what is hurting Maria.

It is something that hits biology, environmental chemistry, so many different fields cross it, and I think that the students really enjoy doing it.  In a sense, it’s similar to forensic chemistry.  My kids are fascinated by forensic chemistry.  They all watch CSI:  Miami, CSI:  New York, and any time there’s a scenario where there’s a chemical that they have to determine what is this?  Is this white chemical baking soda or is it cocaine?  And within five seconds it seems like in the lab they find the results to that. I have to explain to them this is not really now forensic chemistry works.  There are these very expensive instruments that my kids think are these magical instruments that they’ve never heard of before that will help you analyze the (molar) mass is of different substances.  You can find out what elements like carbon and nitrogen and oxygen are in there.

Again, these are instruments my kids up till now have never had access to and it’s my dream that through remote labs, through online learning we could be able to have them robotically access these instruments online and be able to control them and be able to test samples.  I’m sure they won’t be illegal drugs or anything but they could still test samples and learn about the composition and what elements they’re made of.

I think that making chemistry and making any science relevant to a student’s life is really going to bring in that interest factor. They see all these things in movies and they don’t realize sometimes that this could possibly be a career or this could be possibly something in my backyard that could be hurting me and I’m not even aware of it. So any time you can bring in that relevancy it’s great and so much of what I’ve done in the past in my classroom is something that has a known outcome.  I know what the kids are going to find in the lab and in scenario like this, we could actually possibly take water samples from lakes around my area, from even Lake Michigan. Maybe in the future we could send them in and we could analyze them and really find out what’s in there. That’s an unknown.  That is something that’s going to spark their interest and make them curious about learning and right now we just don’t have that capability in my classroom.


My work with the iLab Network so far has been dealing with the Geiger counter that’s in Australia and now we’re trying to get the ICP at Northwestern to be remotely accessible to everyone around the world.  My goal would be could we add one instrument every single year?  Can we get gas chromatography available to them?  Can we get (mass spec) available to them?  I think within ten years, maybe we’ll even have the ability to do this in several places, different universities, different locations.  Maybe it’s a school district that’s going to say I’m going to put forth the money for this instrument, maybe your school district could put for the money for this, and we’re all going to share because we don’t have the money to get it in every single school.  So I think if we could add one every single year that would really, really be a great accomplishment for kids.