Michelle Lee

Michelle Lee at Springman Middle School


Bob Chang and students

Bob Chang (center) and students (from left) Stephen Wylie, Siu-Hin Wan, Joey Hsu, and Lee Lamers test "Nanocos," an educational card game the students developed.

Across the nano divide

EDC students design nanoscience lessons for middle schools

Bob Chang's passion is teaching the fundamentals of nanotechnology to the next generation of scientists and engineers. It's a mission for which he has secured more than $15 million in funding and been recognized as an NSF Director's Distinguished Teaching Scholar.

When Chang, professor of materials science and engineering and director of the National Center for Learning and Teaching in Nanoscale Science and Engineering (NCLT) at Northwestern, was asked to teach a section of Engineering Design and Communication (EDC), he saw an opportunity to use McCormick students to help bridge the gap between scientists and middle-school students. He had the EDC students work with local middle-school teachers to develop a two-week curriculum in nanotechnology and then test activities with the middle-school students.

"I realized that it would be fantastic for the young people to do nano education," Chang says. "There is no way that I could do a good job communicating to middle-school kids, but a younger generation could. Some of the students have siblings in middle school, which is perfect."

Focusing efforts on middle school provided advantages over high school, according to Chang. "In high school the curriculum is such that students really don't have time in their schedules for something new and different," he says. "In middle school there is less structure and fewer exams. Middle-school teachers told the students that they could design something that would be taught for two weeks. The curriculum is very open and flexible."

Chang cotaught two sections of EDC with Penny Hirsch, lecturer and associate director of the Writing Program in Weinberg College, and Emma Tevaarwark, a postdoctoral researcher working at NCLT. The class projects provided a good opportunity for students to study both the engineering and communication processes emphasized in EDC. "The nano projects were wonderful for teaching communication," says Hirsch, "because students had to design lessons and write explanations for different audiences, such as middle-school students, middle-school teachers, and their own EDC peers."

There were eight EDC teams divided between two key concepts in nanotechnology: measurement, including scanning probe microscopy, and surface-area-to-volume ratio (SVR). Students developed and tested their two-week curricula within these broad parameters.

Understanding measurement

Measurement is a key concept for all areas of science, but teaching the basic concepts of measurement at the nanoscale can be challenging. "When you deal with things that you cannot see, such as in the nano range, the question becomes, what instruments do you use?" Chang says. "We wanted the students to think how to measure and how to estimate the size of something. That gives a framework to say, 'If I don't have a ruler, I can still estimate the size.' That kind of notion is very important."

First-year McCormick students Keanan Ryan, Kari Nigorizawa, Eric Bertram, and Michelle Lee, who made up one EDC team, say they had to prepare extensively to work well with middle-school students, since they lacked background in education as well as nanotechnology.

"We did a lot of background research about how people learn, middle-school curricula, and the atmosphere of middle-school classrooms," Lee says. "We tried to get in the mindset of a middle-school student."

The team developed a curriculum that introduced students to the basic components of measurement, culminating in the introduction of the scanning probe microscope, a key tool for exploring nanotechnology.

Understanding how to measure requires developing a frame of reference. To achieve this goal, the team developed the "white globes activity" for its class at Springman Middle School in suburban Glenview. Each of four groups was given a white Styrofoam® ball, stickers, and markers. After placing stickers anywhere on the globe, the middle-school students identified a zero point and frame of reference that would allow another group to determine where the stickers were. As some students struggled to communicate their sticker locations, they began to understand the need for a clear and concise measurement system.

In addition to the white globes activity, this EDC team developed and tested a "budget" scanning probe microscope. "It's a lot cheaper and easier to use in more classrooms," says Ryan. "It's a model scanning probe microscope made out of the most basic materials so students can put it together and understand how it works."

Developing the curriculum helped this group of EDC students become more aware of the importance of teaching nanoscience concepts to younger ages. "In the future there are going to be a lot of consumer products that are based on nanoscience," says Nigorizawa. "We won't be able to design those projects without the interest and knowledge of future generations and even our own generation."

Ratios and reactions

"Surface area-to-volume ratio is a basic and interesting concept to teach young learners. It's not a trivial thing it will follow them all the way to graduate school," Chang says. "Much of chemistry happens on the surface, so it's very important that they take surface into account in experiments. And the concept of SVR is enhanced when the size of the material is very small."

In order to teach middle-school students the concept, first-year McCormick students Siu-Hin Wan, Lee Lamers, Stephen Wylie, and Joey Hsu used an unconventional idea based on the popularity of card games such as Magic and Pokemon. The group developed "Nanocos," which Lamers describes as "essentially a two-person game with object cards, each of which has a surface area-to-volume ratio.

"The students really start getting engaged in calculating the numbers in order to beat their opponents," he says.

To teach the specific concepts, the team needed to start with the big picture, breaking the lessons down into volume, surface area, ratios, and then surface area-to-volume ratio. They then got into the more complicated aspects of how a chemical reaction will take place more readily on surfaces than the bulk, so reaction rates are usually higher for materials with large surface-to-volume ratio.

Lamers observes that a card game is a powerful educational tool. "Once they knew the math, they really enjoyed the game," he says. "Students actually came up to us during the passing period to ask if they could play the game again."

Putting the ideas into practice

At the end of the quarter each of the eight teams presented its curriculum, including worksheets, student and teacher handbooks, and evaluations, to their mentor teachers and all members of the class. Four students continued working on the projects as 2006 NCLT Engineering Scholars, distilling the best pieces of all the projects down to two good units or modules. Chang hopes that their work will lead to curricula that teachers can begin implementing in their classrooms as soon as possible.

"Career interests for young people are pretty much decided by the middle of high school," he says. "Looking at the projects, I was thrilled. The students are doing all the right things to communicate science to a middle-school student."

Chang continues to receive major funding for his pursuits, including a recent $6.9 million grant to develop a national center at McCormick for his Materials World Modules. As his work progresses, Chang hopes to continue using McCormick students as he pursues his passion of developing a nano-literate generation.

Kyle Delaney