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NanoDays: Sparking kids' interest in the infinitesimal

NanoDays 2009

On a daily basis, Lehigh materials science and engineering students conduct many types of experiments in the basement of Whitaker Lab. But not all of their work is as entertaining as smashing chocolate with a pendulum impact tester.

It isn't a professor's nightmare about what goes on in the lab when she's not around. It's just one element of a carefully-constructed plan to interest younger students in the wonders of science -- part of the 2010 annual NanoDays Celebration held at the Da Vinci Science Center in Allentown, Pa., co-hosted by the Da Vinci Science Center and Lehigh University. This year's event takes place Saturday, March 27, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Rick Vinci and Sabrina Jedlicka, assistant professors of materials science and engineering, along with some 30 undergraduate members of Lehigh's Student Materials Society, are planning many hands-on, nano-inspired activities to help first- through fifth- grade kids and their families develop a better understanding of nanotechnology's infinite possibilities.

The Da Vinci Science Center/Lehigh NanoDays event is part of a national, week-long coordination of similar events taking place all over the U.S. between March 27 and April 4 of this year.

According to the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network, it is a "festival of educational programs about nanoscale science and engineering and its potential impact on the future."

Prof. Vinci says that the national event is designed to inform the general public about nanotechnology and to demystify issues and answer questions -- a collaboration among scientists and science education institutions all over the country. The Lehigh group's participation is funded by the Student Materials Society, the Student Senate, and the National Science Foundation.

"The nano world is not something that's usually accessible to kids," Vinci says. "What we're trying to get across is a basic concept. If we can get them to understand that we're talking about really small scales of measurement, and that knowing what happens to objects at that scale gives materials invisible superpowers, that's probably enough. Making it fun helps make the lesson memorable."

The Lehigh students, led by Riyanka Pai, '10, and MariAnne Sullivan,'11, will set up stations with a variety of activities for the children. "There's things that go pop, they get to squirt things with squirt guns, they can get a little messy and no one will mind," says Vinci.

Vinci says that nanomaterials are already part of many aspects of daily life. He will present a lunchtime lecture that day for children about the applications for nanomaterials in space, and how those same materials make a difference every day right here on Earth.

The examples are endless. Scientists are working on new stain-resistant clothing made with nanotech fiber that feels less stiff and synthetic than ever before. Nanotechnology is also being applied to research into generating electricity through ordinary motion of the body, which could have applications into pacemakers and other life-saving devices.

"The whole point of nanotechnology is that you can add new functions to pre-existing materials and do so unnoticeably because the additions are so small," he says. "Those additions can essentially disappear into the material -- and provide a new property or benefit that the material couldn't otherwise perform."

The Da Vinci Science Center is an independent nonprofit organization that partners with Lehigh University and several other regional organizations on a variety of exhibits, educational programs, and public programs. The Center's collaborations with Lehigh University include the creation of a nanotechnology exhibit workbench for visitors along with instructional support for the Center's professional development programs and public programs.

Terry J. Hart '68, professor of practice in Lehigh's Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics and a former NASA Astronaut, serves as Community Chairman of the Da Vinci Science Center's 2010 Science Hall of Fame Awards. The Center's signature annual event honors teachers who bring science to life vibrantly, community leaders who support the Center's mission, and high school students who demonstrate a unique for passion inside and outside the classroom. The Center's 2010 Science Hall of Fame Keynote Speaker will be former Astronaut Winston E. Scott, who overcame segregation and poverty to become the second African-American to walk in space.

"The Da Vinci Science Center is fortunate to have a partner in Lehigh University right in its backyard," said Troy A. Thrash, the Da Vinci Science Center's executive director and CEO. "The expertise of Lehigh's faculty and staff and its work with exciting, cutting-edge platforms help us provide a richer experience for the greater Lehigh Valley that connects its community members to science in a meaningful manner."

Nanodays is about bringing lives to science, a perfect fit within the mission of the Da Vinci Science Center. Says Rick Vinci: "The goal is to spark an interest and create a tangible association. We want them to hear 'nanotechnology' and associate it with real items -- better clothing, improved power production, better ink jet printers -- all sorts of 'things' as opposed to a vague word."

The NanoDays 2010 activities at the Da Vinci Science Center are open to everyone with paid Center admission. Two special classroom activities -- Stained Glass (1:30 p.m.) and Chocolate Composites (2:30 p.m.) -- will be presented for the first 30 registered children. Lehigh students will receive a $2 discount from their admission price that day with their Lehigh ID. Families can register by calling (484) 664-1002, Ext. 110.

For more information on this event or other Da Vinci Science Center programs, please contact the Da Vinci Science Center at (484) 664-1002.

Story by Allyson Planders

Posted on Monday, March 22, 2010

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