Nanoscale science and engineering is advancing at a rapid pace and is thought by many to be the next big area of research and development. This field is developing so quickly that in a few years students won’t be considered scientifically literate if they don’t have an understanding of the nanoscale phenomena. Thus, it is important for us to study how students learn about nanoscience related concepts, when and how they should be incorporated into the curriculum (within grade 6 to college-level), and to determine the major learning challenges in this field in order to prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers.
The National Center for Learning and Teaching in Nanoscale Science and Engineering, an NSF-funded research center, has several work circles across the country. LSRI is involved in the work circle based at UIC in collaboration with Northwestern University, which has focused on the concept of self-assembly and use of design activities as a method to support learning at the middle and high school levels. Self-assembly is one of the fundamental concepts related to nanoscale science and engineering. With nanoscale components, it is difficult and inefficient to assemble larger structures by the traditional means of picking up and placing pieces into the correct arrangement. Alternatively, the components and environment can be designed so that the components self-assemble into the desired formation through the use of attractive and repulsive forces.
Our work circle has developed several design-based activities that explore the concepts of nanoscale self-assembly for use with middle, high school, and undergraduate students. One activity focuses on designing models of DNA helper strands to allow for virus detection. Another examines targeting and capturing nanoscale particles through the application of electric field gradients. The manipulation of dipole charges on particles to create target aggregate shapes is the goal of another activity. Each of these activities involves the use of computer simulations as representations of nanoscale phenomena and some also involve tangible materials.
Pilot studies are currently being conducted at multiple age levels to explore effectiveness and feasibility of the various activities. The long-terms goals of our research are to determine how various representational types and design-based activities support student learning of nanoscience, and to refine the materials and curricula into practical and useful classroom activities.