URBANA – Usually the stuff of "clean" rooms and laboratories and studied by university research professors, nanotechnology is making its way to the classroom.
To the middle school and high school classroom, that is, thanks to a summer institute for teachers being held at the University of Illinois.
At the Center for Nanoscale Chemical Electrical Mechanical Manufacturing Systems – or NanoCEMMS – within the UI's College of Engineering, they deal with things tiny.
Very, very tiny.
Like, one billionth of a meter tiny.
Throughout the summer, the center's staff works with about 30 teachers from around the state, mostly within 30 to 40 miles of Champaign-Urbana. The participants are mostly math and science teachers, but there have also been art teachers and industrial technology educators and librarians.
They spend the first week of the two-week session learning about the latest research being conducted in the field, and the second week working in the lab and office planning how to incorporate what they've learned into their own classroom, said Joe Muskin, the center's educational coordinator.
Muskin, who also teaches part time at Next Generation School in Champaign, said the summer workshops help teachers not only understand nanotechnology, but work with it and play with it.
The result is the emerging technology is present in the classroom and the university research lab, and that's a good thing, he said, as "too often those two worlds don't often meet."
"Usually I provide students with background knowledge about what the (nanotechnology) field consists of. This will allow them to have the opportunity to do hands-on work," said Bud Root, a technology teacher at Rantoul Township High School who was attending a recent session on campus. His students this coming school year shouldn't expect lectures in nanotechnology, but real experience with it.
On Monday, Root printed a tiny three-dimensional model of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., with a projector, a staging device and some polyethylene glycol.
His students will be able to do the same thing.
The heart of the machine the teachers use on campus during the institute is a data projector, Muskin said, along with a magnifying glass, a mirror and a beaker. Like a dentist shines a UV light to solidify a filling, the equipment the teachers use solidifies the chemical, he said.
The teachers, and ultimately their students, can manufacture super-thin polymer layers and create an object layer by layer.
It's all based on research by UI mechanical science and engineering Professor Nicholas Fang, Muskin said. But instead of using the expensive equipment found at a university, the teachers can borrow staging devices with gadgets called micromanipulators from the university and bring them into their classrooms during the school year. Those cost about $20 to build, Muskin said.
"Students eat this stuff up. It's the highlight of their semester," Muskin said.
They can design the object freehand, in a program such as Microsoft Paint or using Mathematica software, in which students create objects by entering and manipulating mathematical equations.
Muskin's students at Next Generation have made 3-D models of the Taj Mahal, of LEGO blocks and more. Earlier this spring they went to Nano Days at the St. Louis Science Center, where they and hundreds of other students printed objects and were able to take them home.
"It's liberating for the students," he said, because they actually make something and they understand the process behind making the object.
"It's just mind-boggling," said Eric Rittman, a junior and senior high school librarian in Villa Grove, about nanotechnology and research into fluid dynamics as well as the 3-D printing he was practicing during the institute. He signed up for the institute so he could help students with their science fair projects.
"It's a usable technology that is going to become mainstay," Rittman said.
The practical applications are wide-ranging, such as creating bioreactors that harvest insulin, Muskin added.