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Small world, big insights

CNSI summer institutes introduce high-schoolers to the nanoscale realm

by Nikki Lin

Applications of Nanoscale students measure the height of water droplets (photo credit: CNSI)

The effects of nanoscience are at once ubiquitous and invisible. They’re baked into everything from sunscreen and disinfectants to batteries and consumer electronics. But the action takes place at scales of one-billionth of a meter, far beyond the range of the naked eye.

To dispel some of the mystery — and give young people a head start on college training in STEM — the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA hosts four courses each summer introducing high-school students from near and far to contemporary topics in nanoscience research.

“Nanoscience is not a part of the standard high school science curriculum,” said Rita Blaik, Education Manager at CNSI. “By participating in our summer programs, students get some real experience with a very exciting aspect of modern science.

The courses, which award participants UC credits upon completion, pack an intense schedule of lectures, lab tours, workshops and hands-on activities — as well as homework — into one- and two-week curricula. Students get a taste of life at UCLA, staying in the dorms during the institutes. Each class is capped with a set of final presentations during which groups of students show off what they have learned.

“I’m always impressed by what students come up with in such a short period of time,” Blaik said. “It’s really amazing to see them digest all the knowledge and display it in the final presentations.”

In the “Applications of Nanoscience” summer institute, students learn fundamental concepts related to performing scientific research in the first week and get the chance to propose and conduct their own experiment in the second. They present the results of their investigations on the last day of class.

The five-day “Nanoscience Lab” course gives students basic hands-on experience in areas ranging from as nanofabrication to the nanoscience-biology interface. At the culmination of the class, participants are challenged to explain these concepts to friends and family with the assistance of illustrations created by their peers.

“The topics seemed difficult to grasp at first, but the instructors made it really easy to understand,” said Anna Aitken, a “Nanoscience Lab” student who begins her final year of high school in Vancouver, Canada, this fall. “It was also cool to get the experience of what it would be like to live on a college campus and go to college classes.”

“Nanoscale Microscopy,” which runs for five days, introduces participants to the tools used to visualize activity at the nanoscale — fluorescence, electron, and scanning probe microscopes.