Science

Nanotech Lessons

By Sean Cavanagh — June 16, 2009 6 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE

Nanotechnology is the science of tiny things. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter in length. A sheet of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick.

Each day in class, it’s the job of John Balet to bring nanotechnology into plain view. He and his students discuss applying nanotechnology to produce better computer chips, more-protective car wax, and less-visible sunscreen. They talk about its potential to transform solar power, and possibly cure cancer, as well as the ethical and safety concerns surrounding the science.

Mr. Balet, who teaches at Ballston Spa High School outside Albany, N.Y., is one of a handful of teachers around the country who have fashioned curriculum and lessons around nanotechnology, one of the fastest-emerging areas of scientific research. Some schools are crafting lessons with help from local universities and companies that work in nanoscience. That’s the case at Ballston Spa High, located in an area of eastern New York known as Tech Valley, home to many technology firms and top-flight research institutions.

By delving into nanotechnology, a specialized subject that is more commonly taught at the university level, teenagers in the 4,500-student Ballston Spa district not only gain an understanding of a rapidly advancing area of science, but also pick up skills coveted by local employers, Mr. Balet says.

“Do I think they’ll have an advantage? Yes,” he said. “Nanotechnology is going to be affecting products in so many areas of our lives.”

While there is no single definition of nanotechnology, it is generally described as the design and engineering of materials and particles at the molecular or atomic level. Scientists trace the development of modern nanotechnology to the 1980s, and researchers in biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering have made major advances in the field since then.

Today, nanotechnology is used to make materials stronger, clothing more stain-resistant, and computer chips more sophisticated. Scientists see potential for nanotech to produce environmental and energy benefits, such as in the development of batteries that are more efficient and solar panels that yield more power.

Some of the more tantalizing potential breakthroughs are evident in medicine, such as the possible use of nanoparticles to isolate and eliminate cancerous growths.

That technology was highlighted on a segment of “60 Minutes” last year, which Mr. Balet recently showed in his class.

Not long afterward, the teacher staged a lab activity in his class to simulate the nanotechnology used by the cancer researchers.

“It opened up a whole new spectrum of how the world worked,” said Zach Durocher, 17, a senior taking the course. “I never knew there was so much of a process that went into making things, like computer chips and technology.”

Lessons From Scratch

This is the first time nanotechnology is being taught in Ballston Spa. Mr. Balet, a science teacher, leads students through a semester-long section of the elective called Biomedical Applications, while his colleague, technology teacher Michael Potter, covers Materials Sciences the other semester.

The teachers picked up ideas for their class last summer at an institute on developing nanotechnology curricula at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, or RPI, in nearby Troy, N.Y.

They have an advocate in Ballston Spa Superintendent Joseph A. Dragone. In 2007, while working as an assistant superintendent in the Albany city school system, Mr. Dragone supported the creation of a nanotechnology course, with cooperation from the college of nanoscience and engineering at the University of Albany. When he arrived in the Ballston Spa district last August, planning for the nanotechnology course was well under way.

Mr. Dragone thought the subject would have special relevance to students and families in a region that includes large operations for the General Electric Co. and Advanced Micro Devices, a major technology corporation.

Students in Balet's class examine a nanocell model.

“Everyone has been cognizant that this has broad application for our district,” Mr. Dragone said recently. “Science is going in this direction. We’re missing a huge opportunity if we don’t do this.”

Building a science course from scratch isn’t easy. Mr. Balet has no textbook. He and Mr. Potter have crafted their own activities and lessons, using ideas from the rpi workshop and teachers they stay in touch with from other districts.

When an issue in nanotech captivates his students, Mr. Balet tries to build on it.

That occurred when he showed the “60 Minutes” story about John Kanzius, a former radio and TV executive with no scientific background who developed a process for pinpointing cancerous growths with radio waves. Using Mr. Kanzius’ idea, scientists are experimenting with nanoparticles made of metal or carbon, which can affix themselves to cancerous tumors and kill them with intense heat.

Mr. Balet’s class set out to re-create what occurs at the nano level. His students filled a tub with plastic golf-ball-size spheres, attaching pins, fabric fasteners, and magnets to them. Then they constructed models of gold nanocell particles—made of beads, glue, and gold glitter—and threw them into the tub, which was shaken, with all the different plastic balls inside.

Some of those nanocell particles attached themselves to the magnets, simulating the nanoshell bonding to specific cell receptors found on the cancerous cells.

Ethical Concerns

Mr. Balet also has his students research the uses of nanotechnology in various products. For example, a company might assert that its products, at the nano level, seep into the surface of a car’s exterior at the molecular level, forging a stronger sealant. When businesses make such claims about their use of nanotech, “are they giving consumers the full story?” Mr. Balet asks students.

In addition to building students’ science skills, nanotechnology studies are making the young men and women more appealing to employers, argues Superintendent Dragone. He said employers have told him that high school students with nanotechnology backgrounds who go on to receive two years of technical training can find entry-level jobs as technicians making between $50,000 and $70,000 a year.

Some of the implications surrounding nanotechnology lessons are ethical, not economic. Scientists and consumer advocates warn that engineering stronger, lighter, and more powerful products at the molecular level could pose risks to human health and the environment that are not yet understood.

“The increasing use of engineered nanoscale materials in industrial and consumer products will result in greater exposure of workers and the general public to these materials,” said a 2008 report of the National Research Council, which called for greater government research on the potential hazards of nanotechnology. Advances in the field, the report added, require making “every reasonable effort to anticipate and mitigate adverse effects and unintended consequences.”

Kenneth Bowles, a teacher at Apopka High School, in Apopka, Fla., spends about nine weeks on nanotechnology during his engineering class. Typically, one day a week is devoted to discussions of ethics. One recent topic was whether nanotechnology could be used to forge new weapons at the molecular or atomic scale that would be easy to build and impossible to detect.

The science teacher’s interest in nanotechnology at the high school level grew after participating in a workshop about five years ago at the University of Central Florida, in Orlando. Mr. Bowles has written a 40-page teachers’ guide on the subject. Nanotechnology studies should probably be reserved for older high school students who have taken chemistry and physics, he suggested.

“A lot of the experiments require a good knowledge of science,” Mr. Bowles said. “There’s a big learning curve, if you really want to do the neat nanotechnology that’s out there.”

Yet one the most significant challenges the teacher faces is one of the simplest, he added.

“It’s getting them to understand the concept of ‘small,’ ” Mr. Bowles said. “They can’t picture it. It just blows kids’ minds that you can take a piece of coal, rearrange its atoms, and make a diamond.”

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