The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

Local News

October 18, 2010

Program gives teachers tiny tools

DANVILLE — Leaders of the University of Illinois’ nanotechnology department say a “teachers enhancement” program is starting to pay dividends in local classrooms.

The program is designed to bring cutting-edge nanotechnology concepts — the study and application of some of the planet’s smallest known particles — outside of the laboratory and into young students’ minds.

“It’s a very different way of looking at science,” said Polly Kroha, managing director of the Nano-Chemical, Electrical, Mechanical and Manufacturing Systems division at UI, “but the applications are really amazing. The idea is to get the research content out and actually into the curriculum.”

The program trains about 30 teachers each year and she said this year was the largest Danville-area group yet, with eight teachers attending the two-week training — which includes follow-up sessions and access to educational materials.

“Nanotechnology is going to be the next big thing,” she said. “Everything’s going smaller and smaller.”

From industrial coatings and clothing, to health-care applications and defense industry uses, nano is already emerging from its invisible world — a world where the surface area’s volume is always greater than the manipulated nuclear components sitting upon it.

Presenters at the teachers camp were actual scientists and researchers, and the teachers were able to work closely with them since class sizes were divided into three groups of 10.

The first week was an introduction to the emerging scientific field, the second was spent helping teachers develop personalized curriculum to meet state learning standards. Teachers will return for follow-up sessions and have ongoing access to free classroom experiment kits.

“This information is coming right from the lab,” she said, “but a lot of the teaching concepts come from the teacher workshops.”

Kroha said the program, funded by the National Science Foundation, doesn’t just disseminate information — it has been developed to create classroom techniques for reaching younger children.

“This has already been taught in elementary classrooms,” she said. “They’ve been able to bridge that divide. We try to incorporate all of the senses.”

Roxanne Crowder, a special education teacher at Meade Park, said the camp was impressive, as researchers shared actual products that use nanotechnology — some available on the market now, such as stain-blockers for clothes, some still being tested — and then explained how they work.

She said she was particularly amazed at a new material that allows a cell phone to be rolled up like a ball and surgical gloves that could monitor a body’s vital statistics.

“I didn’t realize how intricate some of the technology is,” she said. “They actually had the scientists and professors there who were working on these things.”

“It was just mind-boggling,” said East Park teacher Liz Benjamin. “We heard and saw a lot of amazing things. A lot of these things are already on the market.”

Liberty teacher Terri Albers said all of the teachers hope they can help mold the next great scientist.

“If we can talk about science early on,” she said, “you might see some students making choices about their future early on. I think it can be overwhelming for them sometimes, but it’s important they all know scientists are not just older, white males in lab coats.”

Kroha said the effort is meant to increase the standing of science in the face of an increase in school emphasis on reading and math standards.

“Teachers have to spend a lot of time on improving math and reading scores,” Kroha said. “That’s taking up all the air in the room.”

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