Science has always been the study of really big things, but a group of area teachers is challenging students to think small instead.
Eight Danville-area teachers are introducing nanotechnology into their classrooms, using hands-on experiments to teach students about the application of some of the smallest known particles on the planet.
“It’s not in the future at all,” said Lisa Burgess. “It’s right here, right now.”
The local classroom push towards the emerging science comes thanks to an innovative program at the University of Illinois, whose nanotechnology center has offered a two-week, summer teachers’ camp through a National Science Foundation grant for the past four years.
This summer’s group of 30 teachers included the largest group of Danville teachers yet, with three from East Park Elementary School and one each from Meade Park Elementary, Liberty Elementary and Danville High School. A teacher each from Danville Lutheran School and Westville Junior High School also attended.
As part of the program, the teachers will return for follow-up training and observation later this year.
Burgess said the teachers were not only trained in classroom techniques for teaching nanotechnology to young students, they were exposed to some of the nation’s top researchers who have worked to bring nano products to the commercial market.
“There are so many ways to go with this,” she said, explaining the advanced fifth-grade MATS classes would be using nano materials to create silver mirrors on Petri dishes. Other classes are using heated gold and silver nano materials to make multi-colored kaleidoscopes.
She said there are classroom lessons that can be brought across disciplines, for example, a unit on Frank Lloyd Wright architecture could include the medieval stained-glass method, which used metallic oxides — an early but then-unknown form of nano technology.
“Hopefully in the future, some of these kids will be working on the front lines (in the nanotechnology field),” she said.
“This is something that probably isn’t even presented in their science books just yet,” said Kim Wright, a junior-high teacher at Danville Lutheran School. “But we’re seeing that nano products are already on the market and it’s important to know how they work.”
Wright is planning to incorporate nano into art classes and has plans to take them on a field trip to the UI’s nanotechnology center.
“They will actually get to go in a semi-clean lab,” she said. “I think they’re going to be super excited.”
She said nanotechnology will be part of the textbook learning experience, but as a parochial-school teacher, she sees greater implications.
“It’s just amazing that the smallest working parts of us have very intricate pieces,” she said. “It makes us realize how special we really are.”
Area teachers say the extra scientific push is welcome because science doesn’t always get its due in the classroom because of the high emphasis on meeting reading and math standards.
“Technology is growing so quickly,” said East Park teacher Liz Benjamin. “We use it every day and we don’t even notice it.”
She said the three East Park teachers will team up on projects.
While there may not be any scientific breakthroughs in the classroom experiments, the idea, Benjamin said, is to simply introduce the concept of nanotechnology and its many uses.
“We hope we can at least open their minds to it,” she said. “That’s the big thing — how do you reach them? We have to get kids at least exposed to it.”
Nano science is moving so quickly Benjamin predicted it would someday soon be part of the regular school curriculum.
“As it becomes more popular, it’s going to have to be,” she said.
She said the UI program had proven especially beneficial as it includes experiment kits that can be ordered by teachers at no cost.
Terri Albers, a first-grade teacher at Liberty Elementary, said the classroom experiments are beneficial in piquing student curiosity — even at the younger age levels.
“We just want them to start asking questions of why things work,” she said. “For us it’s as simple as, ‘What’s a scientist and what does a scientist do?’; ‘How does that work?’ I want them to look at an apple and ask, ‘Why does this apple look like this?’”
She said the introduction to younger students could lead them to a science career that involves discoveries beneficial to everyone.
“Right now, we are not graduating the scientists of the world,” she said. “Just being a little familiar about things makes a well-rounded student and a well-rounded teacher.
“We just want to put a little wind under their wings.”
Roxanne Crowder, a special education teacher at Meade Park, said she hopes to find hands-on ways to reach her students as well.
“My goal is to see if hands-on activities really do increase the knowledge of science,” she said. “Hopefully, it will help them learn. This is the future and I think we need to gear our children toward this.”