Campus & Community

Sparking the Minds of Tomorrow’s Scientists with Inquiry-Based Nanotechnology Education

Educators worldwide attend Stevens-sponsored workshop to learn how to integrate nanoscience into science curricula.

Graphical depiction of DNA

The scenes in the 1966 film, “Fantastic Voyage,” in which a microscopic submarine and crew navigate through a scientist’s bloodstream searching for a blood clot in his brain—this is the stuff of classic science fiction.

However, nanoscience is bringing us closer to closing the gap between science fiction and science fact. Case in point: shrinking scientists and sea vessels to the size of a human cell remains elusive. Still, bioengineering scientists are working on manipulating materials such as DNA using devices at the nanoscale to help find cancer tumor sites and deliver on-the-spot treatment.

In August, more than 50 science teachers from the U.S., Germany, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and the United Kingdom explored nanoscience innovations—many of which seem like science-fiction—at the Nanoscience Educator’s Workshop for High School Educators. The week-long virtual event was funded by the National Science Foundation and jointly offered by Stevens Institute of Technology and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).

Photo of Pinar Ackora
Pinar Akcora

Pinar Akcora, associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science at Stevens, along with Rahmi Ozisik of RPI, and Mariel Kolker, a New Jersey physics teacher, co-developed the workshop.

“The workshop prepares teachers on teaching the phenomenon-based properties of nanomaterials,” Akcora said.

She and Kolker began working together more than ten years ago. During her CAREER project, Akcora invited Kolker into her lab to learn about polymers and nanomaterial characterization. Kolker went on to develop her own course on nanoscience. Later, they prepared two workshops for teachers on how to integrate hands-on learning with nanoscience. “The interactions between teachers and professors are valuable experiences,” said Akcora. “The third workshop was special as it was virtual, and we focused on how to engage students in virtual learning through nanoscience. We have reached many more teachers and covered many interesting topics like the CRISPR technology, the latest Nobel Chemistry award-winning discovery.”

Attendees of the workshop aim to incorporate what they learned about cutting-edge nanoscience applications into their regular chemistry or biology curricula.

Thinking about science curricula in a new way

Nanoscience sits at the intersection of physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering. As a multidisciplinary field of study, nanoscience can spark young people’s imaginations and motivate them to pursue science careers.

Teachers attending the workshop aim to apply what they learned to encourage their students to think about science education and careers in new and exciting ways.

In one session, teachers explored the science behind a gecko’s ability to stick to flat surfaces. Understanding how nanostructures in geckos’ feet adhere to surfaces has led engineers to develop wall-climbing apparatuses for drones and possibly humans in the future.

Teachers also learned about the uses of see-through titanium nanoparticles to create transparent solar cells. If applied to skyscraper windows, this technology could revolutionize urban energy generation and transform the cities of the future.

According to Kolker, the workshop aimed to help teachers inspire students to think about future college and career possibilities in nanoscience and nanotechnology fields.

“It is essential that teachers spark interest to illuminate future careers in science,” said Kolker, who teaches a nanoscience and engineering course at Morristown High School in Morristown, New Jersey.

“I find that outreach activities with high school science teachers are the most effective way of reaching out to students,” Akcora said. “We plan to work with teachers of underrepresented and minority-serving schools in the years to come. We hope to develop a network of mentoring relationships among high school teachers and faculty, which will support teachers and their students in their professional and college careers.”

A secondary goal of the workshop was to help promote inquiry-based lessons in teaching practices. That means that instead of teaching a series of facts or equations to memorize, teaching techniques incorporate opportunities to allow students to think like a scientist.

This approach aligns with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), first published in 2013 and now adopted by 19 U.S. states. NGSS standards enable science teachers to design classroom learning experiences focused on stimulating student interests and preparing them for college and careers.

However, during a time when K-12 school districts are partially or wholly online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers also face the challenge of making science lessons exciting and engaging through virtual learning.

“Engaging students online is far more challenging than in the classroom. They have so many more distractions at home,” said Kolker.

That’s why, when developing the nanoscience workshop in conjunction with Stevens and RPI, Kolker felt it necessary to create high-interest material that not only applied directly to current school science curricula, but that also introduced teachers to techniques and platforms for developing effective virtual lesson plans.

At the workshop’s conclusion, participants noted that they found connections applicable to their students’ experiences. A survey taken by attendees revealed that 97.3% were likely or very likely to incorporate some of the workshop information into their future classroom lessons.

Learn more about the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at Stevens: