March 31, 2008

Nanoday Brings Big and Small Out to Play With Nanotechnology

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Yesterday, hundreds of kids — some just knee-high and others soon to be college applicants — ran up and down Duffield Atrium with all sorts of goody bags in tow.
But their goody bags were not filled with party favors; instead they were labeled with scientific facts and filled with things like multicolored filter paper and edible but unfamiliar small red blobs.
Examining the looks on their faces, one might think they kids were attending a party, but in fact it was the first Nanoday at Cornell, where families came to learn about nanotechnology.
Each goody bag came from a different hands-on exhibit in Duffield Hall, with 20 different tables in all, ranging from making your own silly putty using simple chemical reactions to visualizing DNA in a small tube. The activities appealed to kids with familiar things, like silly putty, but also taught them about the nanotechnology involved in making them.
About 1,000 elementary, middle and high schoolers, parents and teachers attended Cornell’s Nanoday, a week-long national event that began Saturday and was headed by the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network to raise awareness and educate the public about nanoscale science.
There was also a series of four family-friendly lecture series taught by professors in the different engineering and science departments and discussed topics such as the vascular system of trees applied to nanotechnology, renewable energy and the technology behind the iPod Nano.
[img_assist|nid=29297|title=Behind the scenes|desc=About 1,000 elementary, middle and high school kids came to Duffield Hall on Sunday to take part in Nanoday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]Middle and high school students were able to sign up for three different lab workshops in thin-layer chromatography, microfluidics and atomic force microscopy, which offered a more in-depth look at common lab techniques. For example, the thin-layer chromatography lab, in which students separated the dye compounds found in ordinary foods like spinach, also involved discussion of techniques like DNA gel electrophoresis and touched on the physics of cantilevers.
Many other groups also contributed the exhibits to the event, including Cornell’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology Facility, Center for Nanoscale Systems, Nanobio­technology Center, the Cornell Nanofabrication Facility, the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source, and the Cornell Cooperative Extension. These groups all came together through the efforts of Jennifer Weil, director of education at the Nanobiotechnology center, who started Nanoday at Cornell.
“Since there was this push to educate the public during this week and they were going to be doing a lot of national press, I thought it would be an ideal time for us as a community to come together across campus, and within our community, to help the public of upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania to understand the resources they have in their own backyard,” said Weil.
Students from places like Pennsylvania, New York City, Rochester, and Albany joined local students and families. Some teachers were also on hand to get new ideas for classroom activities, according to Weil.
The slime exhibit, where kids could make glittery, bright-colored slime out of polyvinyl alcohol and borax, turned out to be one of the most popular, according to Cindie Wu ’08, a volunteer at the exhibit and the program coordinator of the on-campus group, Encourage Young En­gineers and scientists. There were about 65 undergraduate and graduate student volunteers in all.
“Nanoday is pretty much what EYES is out to do as far as to advance the pursuit of science and engineering. We’ve been busy [at the slime exhibit] all day!” said Wu.
Another well-liked activity involved making Hawaiian Punch-flavored gummy worms by dropping a mixture that included the punch into a clear liquid and watching it solidify.
“You can eat this stuff, and who doesn’t like gummy worms? It was a liquid before and changes into a solid once you put in there. I’m sure some of the smaller kids just think it’s small and gross, but I think a lot of them still learn a lot,” said Jeremy Cusker ’02, who was in charge of the gummy worm table.
Above all, Weil said that the event was meant for “educating the whole family.”
Some children were aspiring scientists, like Greg Tripp, a Boynton Middle School student who is interested in engineering. He participated in the thin-layer chromatography lab as well as many of the hands-on exhibits. His mother, Jill Tripp, mentioned that they come to many other Cornell events.
“We make an effort to come to every open house of anything at Cornell, and we love Duffield Hall,” she said.
Others came to have a good time though they were not necessarily set on becoming scientists, like Pooja Verma, who came with her brother, Rishi, and father, Prof. Rohit Verma, hotel administration.
Pooja “learned a lot” and especially liked an exhibit showing the color changes involved with molecular structural changes induced by UV light, but laughed when asked if she hoped to go into science.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
Although Nanoday is the first event of this scale, according to Weil, she hopes that it will become an annual occasion.
“The hope is that there’s enough initiative after this year and this year is successful enough for next year and that we’ll have developed a model that we’ll be able to continue doing year after year,” Weil said.
Funding for Nanoday came primarily from the Nanobiotechnology Center, which is in turn funded by the National Science Foundation, with additional support from the Cornell Nanofabrication Facility, the Center for Nanoscale Systems and the Ithaca Sciencenter.