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Da Vinci Science Center's 'NanoDays' Illustrates Tiny Technology for Elementary Schoolers

Undergraduate students at Lehigh University have served as the collegiate partners since the center began hosting the program.

Most people, children and adults alike, aren’t used to hearing the phrase ‘nano’ unless it’s used in a conversation about Apple’s newest and tiniest version of the iPod.

But on March 26, "nanotechnology" was the word of the day at the Da Vinci Science Center’s annual NanoDays event, held in cooperation with Lehigh University.

NanoDays, now in its fourth year at the center, is a nationwide program produced by the Nanoscale Informal Science Education (NISE) Network. The event partners science centers with local university research institutions for a day of interactive exhibits and live demonstrations aimed at educating elementary school students about the study of nanotechnology.

Undergraduate students at Lehigh University have served as the collegiate partners since the center began hosting the program.

"Nanotechnology is using materials or components on the nanoscale. The nanoscale is 100 nanometers or 10 to the power of -9 meters. In other words, it’s really small," said Austin Baker, a senior materials science major at Lehigh who volunteered at the event. “When you get to the point that you’re working with something that small, certain things in science have property changes. That is nanotechnology.”

Although the topic might seem a little heavy for the event’s target audience--local elementary school students age 10 and under--the afternoon included classes and hands-on displays that taught them about the presence of nanotechnology in daily situations.

Lehigh University student Abigail Lawrence hosted one of the day’s three classroom sessions. The 45-minute class, titled “Ready, Set, Self-Assemble!” explored the process in which nano-sized elements self-assemble and combine themselves to build complicated structures like DNA and snowflakes.

For the 17 students in the class, this meant breaking into groups and taking on roles as molecules or building a human snowflake out of eight or nine people.

One of the more explosive parts of the day came when Dr. Rick Vinci, Director of the Mechanical Behavior Lab in the Materials Research Center at Lehigh, led a demonstration on temperature extremes. “Molten Metal and Liquid Air: Exploring the Science of Extreme Temperatures” featured liquid oxygen, dry ice and temperatures hotter than 500 degrees.

In addition to a series of classroom exercises, NanoDays offered kids the chance to get some hands-on experience using nanotechnology. A mini-marketplace of science experiments offered on the first floor of the center allowed guests to see nanotechnology at work first-hand, including the thin film table, where they learned that the rainbows that usually reflect off of DVD or CD disks or bird feathers are directly related to nanometers.

Nanosand, scented balloons and non-Newtonian fluid were just a sampling of the other offerings.

While most of the exhibits proved to be quite mindbending for everyone involved, one of the most difficult tasks presented to attendees was to build towers of Legos while wearing oven mitts. It was an attempt by Lehigh students to translate the difficulty of using macroscale tools on nanoscale things.

“We try to use these things on the macroscale to represent what happens on the nanoscale,” said Sarah Horst, senior materials science major. “Things on the macroscale are big and easier to manipulate, and obviously with the nanoscale, that’s not the case.”

Although nanotechnology and the science of smallness may have been the theme of the event, there was one big idea that everyone could get behind.

“I think exposing children to science in general is a great thing. A lot of schools don’t really put as much of an emphasis on science,” said Baker. “Getting the idea out there that science is something you can do for a living or pursue is important at a young age, and hopefully more people understand that after today.”

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