Nano Nano! Workshop for Educators Looks at the ‘Science of Small Things’

Think small! Perhaps this isn’t a phrase that you hear very often these days, but when it comes to
nanotechnology, thinking small, very small, in fact at the atomic level is just perfect! At a time when everyone looks at the big picture, at mass structures, why give the time of day to a study of atoms? “The more we understand the world at the atomic, or the nano scale, the better understanding we have of how things work” says Deb Newberry, principal investigator and director of Nano-Link, the National Science Foundation Center of Excellence in Nanotechnology in Minnesota.

More often than not, most people’s introduction to nano science actually starts while learning about atoms and molecules, and how the composition/arrangement of atoms defines the physical, biological, chemical, electrical properties of everything we see around us. But there is much more to learn about this ‘all things small’ science than meets the eye. From electronics, paints, windows, to self-cleaning energy to material science, or biotechnology, “there isn’t a single industry that isn’t impacted by nano science!” says Newberry. Indeed, nano science influences many different disciplines. There is a huge need to educate students about the applications of nano science and technology in real world settings, and even more imperative for educators to be conversant about nanotechnology.

Given these parameters, FLATE—the Florida-based, National Science Foundation Regional Center of Excellence recently partnered with Nano-Link—to host a nano workshop for educators in the sunshine state. The workshop is part of a network of educator workshops offered by Nano-Link to raise awareness and educate educators by helping infuse nanotechnology concepts into everyday classes/curriculum. “Teachers need to have the confidence to be able to know the subject thoroughly and be able to do the activities and experiments so they can teach these concepts to their students” said Newberry.

In essence, the workshop is using teachers, like Deborah Seto, as vehicles to reach students and make them
aware about nanotechnology and related careers. Seto, who is a science teacher for Ferrell Girls Preparatory Academy in Tampa, says she attended the workshop  because she wants to learn more about nano science and technology. Activities for the workshop were targeted predominantly for high school and college educators, and were based off of 20 modules created by Nano-Link. It covered a broad range of topics that encapsulated everything from chemistry to polimer science, forces and interactions, light and defraction gradings to laminar and turbulent fluid flow etc. Even though the curriculum was designed at a higher level, Seto’s interest in the workshop was spurred by the tremendous amount of research on the topic. “These are the very concepts I am trying to introduce as part of my curriculum to teach middle school students about the science of ‘small things,” Seto said.

Indeed, there are several real-world applications to nano science and technology that few know about. Deborah Newberry points to the abalone shell as an example of nano science/technology at work. Using nano science, Newberry says, scientists have been able to learn and understand the architectural structure of an abalone shell and translate that in real world settings to make earthquake proof buildings, or light weight bullet proof vests. The news is all exciting for teachers like Aimme Randol, a language arts and mathematics teacher at Venice Christian School, who is a proponent of independent research guided learning. She says the workshop gave her an arsenal to develop analysis and critical thinking skills through reading and attention to details. She hopes to use this resource and skill to “help make learning authentic for her students.”

Another positive attribute of nano science is also its positive job outlook. Deborah Newberry says she has more
companies calling her wanting to hire students than the other way round. “I get calls from companies based in California, New York, Indiana etc., looking to hired for skilled workers and technicians.” Current position openings primarily center on product development and research, with many nano technology students and technicians working with scientists and engineers to develop and test new products like new coatings for teeth, or new shingle coatings that don’t mold. Given the job outlook and skill set requirements, even at start-up companies looking for technicians who can understand the nano scale, Deborah Seto is convinced “nano is the wave of the future and where everything is headed,” and that it is important to generate students’ interest at an early stage so they can be exposed to some of these concepts.

The “Workshop for Educators” module has been highly successful not only in terms of being implemented across the United States, but also in its outreach to students. “What we are doing is working” said Newberry. To date, Nano-Link has reached over 33,000 students through educator workshops and other modular approaches,” and boasts of an 83% implementation rate from teachers who have attended the workshop. At the conclusion of the workshop all attendees were also provided with a thumb drive containing PowerPoint slides shared at the workshop that they could take back to review and/or use in class.

The post workshop survey conducted by FLATE indicates an overall satisfaction ratio in the workshop, with an
impressive 4.6 out of a possible 5 where 4 is very good and 5 is excellent. One hundred percent of the participants said they planned to contact Nano-Link through its website www.nano-link.org, and use information presented in the workshop. The same percentage of participants (100%) also stated they would recommend the workshop to others.

For more information on Nano-Link and nano-related workshop for educators contact Director & PI, Deb Newberry at dmnewberry2001@yahoo.com. For information on FLATE’s educator resources and professional development toolkits visit www.madeinflorida.org and www.fl-ate.org, or contact Executive Director/PI, Dr. Marilyn Barger at barger@fl-ate.org, or at 813.259.6578.