Engineering, Science, STEM, Technology

Tiny Science

Tiny Science

By Lisa Tran [Traduire]

Society is embarking on a journey through the Nano Age. Teaching nanotechnology to students provides them with a passport to a world where nanotechnology is becoming the dominant science.

The Nano World sounds like one that exists only in the imaginations of the best sci-fi writers. It is a world with self-cleaning windows and materials that are “harder than diamonds” and “stronger than steel at a fraction of the weight.” But this world is very real and at the helm of our tour is Deb Newberry, a nuclear physicist and nanotechnologist at the Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minnesota. In Newberry’s co-authored book, The Next Big Thing Is Really Small: How Nanotechnology Will Change the Future of Your Business, she describes nanotechnology as “the art and science of manipulating and rearranging individual atoms and molecules to create useful materials, devices, and systems.”

Nanotechnology or, nanoscience, is so-called because atoms and molecules are miniscule—mere nanometres in width where one nanometre equals one billionth of a metre. To better grasp the nanoscale, we can begin by comparing a single strand of human hair with gold atoms. A human hair is approximately 7000nm wide while two and a half gold atoms make up one tiny nanometre. Atoms are small. And as its name suggests, nanoscience is tiny science.

The responsible, diligent scientist does not rely on mere observation. In fact, nanoscientists have successfully replicated the atomic structures of some of the Earth’s hardest and enduring materials and modified them to engineer ones that are stronger and more resilient. Many analysts outside of the scientific realm have applauded nanoscience for its remarkable potential. Venture capitalist, Steve Jurvetson of Draper, Fisher and Jurvetson believes that “nanotechnology is the next great technology wave, the nexus of scientific innovation that revolutionizes most industries and indirectly affects the fabric of society. Historians will look back on the upcoming epoch with no less portent than the Industrial Revolution.”

As for the rest of society, we are affected by nanotechnology because decades of experimentation in laboratories have materialized swiftly into everyday products displayed on store shelves. Take for example, sporting equipment. In a sport like tennis, a stronger racket will propel the ball further, but strong building materials are exceptionally heavy. A tennis player would never use a racket comprised of the strongest steel unless the object of the game was to move as slowly as possible while carrying the heavy, but sturdy racket. Using nanotechnology however, scientists can fabricate new rackets that are stronger yet lighter than traditional ones with super materials such as carbon nanotubes.

Keeping with the sports theme, nanoscientists have also created “super balls”—bouncier tennis balls. The fibres of the balls are shrunk down to nanometres and added to the outer coatings. The fibres are so incredibly small that they are woven more tightly together than regular fibres. The new tennis balls now have fewer crevices for air to flow out, retaining their bounce for a longer period of time.

Many nanotechnology applications have been innovatively incorporated into the design of cosmetics. Zinc oxide is the secret ingredient in sunscreen that protects skin from the sun’s UV rays. Zinc oxide particles are white, but when they are reduced to nanometres, they appear transparent. We can now buy sunscreen that “isn’t the white you see on lifeguards, but still protects exactly the same,” chuckles Newberry.

Surprisingly, even the quality of food can improve with the assistance of nanotechnology. “I sure remember the early days of low-fat yogurt when it had this strange, watery texture,” recalls Newberry. “Fat is an emulsifier, it gives food its smooth consistency,” so less fat means a coarser texture. To solve this food conundrum, manufacturers are now shrinking the fat particles in low-fat products. The foods remain low in fat, but the new texture is finer because the fat becomes virtually invisible. Delicious and nutritious.

Nanotechnology comprises a continuum of development in the prestigious laboratories and in the industrious manufacturers. “The new discoveries are actually being implemented in products and manufacturing and that’s where there will be a whole new category of jobs: in manufacturing, testing, and quality assurance,” says Newberry. Dean Hart of NanoInk, a nanotechnology company, states that the National Science Society estimates two million nanotechnologists will be needed by the year 2015. “Currently, there are only about 20,000 in the world. The need for more specialists in a short amount of time is overwhelming,” but we can start training future nanotechnologists by teaching the science to today’s eager students.

In most fields of science, traditional hands-on research has been reserved for pure research institutes. Nanoscience differs in that students can conduct their own research and contribute to the growing body of knowledge through their experiments. Students interested in nanotechnology can, potentially, translate their passion into a specific career. Nanoscience students can begin specializing as early as the high school level. Most important for educators, nanoscience can incite students to become interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and remain interested in it.

Teaching nanoscience may be a daunting task, but it certainly does not require developing an entirely new course, just yet. Newberry suggests that “nanotechnology concepts can be applied to lesson plans by adding another step of discussion or making small modifications.” She has experience teaching nanotechnology to young people as part of an annual summer camp for high school students at the Dakota County Technical College.
Incorporating nanotechnology into the science curriculum can be relatively simple as exemplified by the following examples:

Chemistry

If you are already conducting a lab that involves boiling and mixing to make precipitates, you do not have to add another experiment, rather, another step. You can substitute the regular chemicals with others just as easy to obtain. Students can then take a solution that already has gold in it, separate the gold atoms, and group them together. And in the process they will be creating gold nanoatoms. They will end up with a red solution and when salt is added, the solution turns grey because you are changing the particle size. “Students would then create gold nano particles instead of that white stuff that falls to the bottom of a test tube,” says Newberry. “They can then use the microscopes to measure and observe that it is not alchemy, but students will still be making gold!

Physics

When students are studying velocity, the classic example they look at is the case of water flowing out of a garden hose. They are asked to calculate the water’s velocity and determine where it will fall. Teachers can add another step and ask student s to observe the fluid flow if a straw was attached to the garden hose. In doing so, teachers can introduce students to the idea of fluid flowing through capillary tubes. “It’s not nanosized atoms, but it’s pretty darn close,” explains Newberry and has their minds thinking about fluid flow at microscopic levels.

Participation and hands-on opportunities are paramount in a student’s learning and comprehension of the sciences. They are stimulated and challenged when they learn through action. Nanotechnology is perfect for classrooms because the core of its practice revolves around plenty of hands-on modules—easier said than done. Fortunately, those in the nanotechnology sector are committed to promoting the science to a broad cross-section of society including educators.

A nanofabrication machine, an important tool in nanoscience, typically requires a clean room for operation that “can easily cost $80-100 million to build and maintain. Who can afford that?” laments Hart. “We need to find a way to place tools in the classroom,” which is precisely why NanoInk has developed the NanoProfessor Suite. It is a suite of equipment and curriculum designed for high school and does not require a clean room. Everything you need to begin teaching nanoscience comes in the package. The NanoProfessor arrives with three pieces of equipment: The NLP 2000, a desktop nanofabrication machine; an Atomic Force Microscope that images solid material; and a Fluorescence Microscope that images biologic material like DNA, viruses, and bacteria. Also included is a supporting in-depth textbook; all the materials necessary to conduct labs; teaching aides including assessments, rubrics, guides, and lecture presentations; notes; and most importantly, training for the equipment, curriculum, and labs. The only thing missing is you.

Nanotechnology’s progress has been hindered by the lack of sophisticated equipment, but soon after new machines were developed, scientists immediately plunged into their specialties. Although nanoscience is still in its research phase, its applications have already stretched across consumer and manufacturing sectors and soon will appear in school boards. Nanotechnology is changing the face of science, the way we live, and the world in which we live. We are now able to improve machines and materials by making them stronger, faster, more efficient, and smaller. No industry will be unaltered. And for the first time, teachers are not an afterthought in the development of a new technology. As nanotechnology revolutionizes our society, nanoscientists do not want to leave educators behind in the Dark Ages. With the proper resources we can lead our students through the journey of this new realm of scientific inquiry and secure their spots on the ride through the Nano Age.

For more information, check out these links:

Dakota County Technical College
NanoProfessor

NanoInk

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