April 3, 2012

New Program Teaches Youngsters Nitty-Gritty of Nanoscale, Energy

Sometimes things are so small, they’re quite hard to envision — especially for kids. For instance, nanotechnology deals with objects sized between one and one thousand billionths of a meter.

Now, that’s small.

Although not the smallest scale scientists study, a grasp of nanoscale is key to understanding a host of emerging technologies, especially those advancing clean energies such as next-generation solar cells. In a more competitive world, such knowledge is vital to creating a 21st-century workforce as well as inspiring would-be inventors and scientists.

Today, a suite of new educational material at the University of Kansas, as part of the Nanotechnology for Renewable Energy project, is introducing the world of nanoscale and energy to students in elementary and middle schools. Much of the effort focuses on a new hands-on program for schools at the KU Natural History Museum (part of the Biodiversity Institute), where visiting students explore energy through the world of cartoon physics, including falling anvils, giant rubber bands and TNT.

“It’s had great success and great reviews,” said Teresa MacDonald, director of education at the museum. “The Cartoon Guide to Energy program was created for grades 4 to 8. We taught this program to more than 700 students last fall as a special preview, and now it’s available to schools as part of our regular programming.”
Before introducing the new workshop, MacDonald and her colleagues pored over the research on educating students about energy, matter and scale, finding that much of what students learn about energy could be disjointed.

“We did a comprehensive literature review about how energy is taught across curriculum,” said MacDonald. “What are the science standards? What are the concerns about the misconceptions about energy? We learned that we need to teach these ideas earlier and really integrate them. A student might learn about the property of matter at one point in school and might learn about forces in another. Our objective was finding a way to integrate all these ideas you learn in school into one program about energy.”

In addition to developing the “Cartoon Guide to Energy” program, MacDonald and her colleagues added nanoscale elements to an already existing museum education program about size and scale, dubbed How Small is Small?

The KU educators and physicists also have developed new content for a successful website called Quarked! — including an expanded glossary and FAQ, a page of links to nanoscale and nanotechnology educational resources, and a series of videos called “Science Shorts” that explore solar energy and electricity.

“Nanotechnology for Renewable Energy” is an outreach component of a National Science Foundation EPSCoR-funded project led by Judy Wu, Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy at KU, as part of the Climate Change and Renewable Energy initiative, a $24 million research endeavor involving some 60 Kansas scientists at multiple institutions.