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Nanotechnology: A New Way to Teach Science

The interdisciplinary nature of nanoscience presents a new set of teaching challenges to elementary and secondary science teachers. Because nanoscale materials are close to their smallest elemental size - atoms - it is impractical to separate the sciences in the conventional way when teaching nanoscience. While the interdisciplinary nature of nanotechnology makes science teaching more complex on one hand, it can also make the study of science more challenging and more interesting to students and teachers alike, on the other.

nano educators

Nanoscale materials are important for a number of reasons. Among the most immediate advantages of engineering at the scale of atoms and molecules is the possibility for a precision not possible at the bulk scale. In bulk materials, parts are made by chipping or grinding large pieces into smaller pieces, resulting in a great deal of waste. Chemicals, too, are mixed in bulk, creating many unwanted reactions and leaving large amounts of potentially toxic residue to clean up. Engineering at the nanoscale saves energy and reduces environmental degradation. Because of nano materials' large surface-to-volume ratio, they become super catalysts in chemical reactions. Because of their size, nanoparticles have been used to successfully clean up toxic waste sites, penetrating through feet of soil to bind and neutralize dangerous chemicals.

Because nature operates at the nanoscale, biology is a gateway to nanotechnology, offering suggestions for nanomanufacturing processes and new nanobiomaterials. Some of the most startling developments in medicine will come through nanoscale biosensors and targeted nanoparticle drug delivery.

Beyond the near-term benefits of nanotechnology, at the most advanced reaches of nanoscience, Penn State researchers are investigating the quantum mechanical properties of nanoscale materials to develop novel materials with behavioral characteristics never before available. One example of such a material developed at Penn State is a metamaterial that refracts light exactly opposite the way it would under the laws of conventional optics. The benefit of such a material is in the development of "perfect optical lenses," but these manufactured nanomaterials are also used for extremely precise antennae for cell phones and other electronics.

Nanotechnology's potential for discovery and invention for future generations of scientists is vast. Researchers are just beginning to exploit the novel scientific phenomena within this new branch of science. For today's science educators, nanotechnology has created new challenges: Incorporating chemistry, biology, engineering, and materials science into the curriculum; learning a new, common vocabulary across disciplines; partnering with universities to introduce students to high-powered electron microscopy tools; staying current with the most significant discoveries in a fast-changing field; imagining a nanotechnology-based workforce of the future. The reward comes in preparing students to be successful in a vastly different technological world.

Penn State's Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization (CNEU) is dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge about the new science of nanotechnology across the social spectrum. For elementary and secondary science teachers that means frequent field visits to schools throughout the Commonwealth, nanoscience summer camps for students, and Science Workshops for Educators. These educator workshops are an outreach program of NASA's Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium, Penn State's Eberly College of Science and the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, the Penn State Astrobiology Research Center, the Penn State Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, the Ridge 2000 Program, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Topics under consideration for future outreach events include:

Basics of Nanofabrication
Basics of Vacuum Science
Top Down Nanofabrication
Lithography Thin Film Deposition
Bottom Up Nanofabrication

To learn more about Penn State's Science Workshops for Educators program, please go to:

This web site is designed to give you access to the full range of teaching resources in the field of nanotechnology at Penn State. Please click on the navigation bars to the left to learn more about education and research at Penn State.