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What does nanoscience mean to me?

Eberly scientists explain the value of what’s invisible to the naked eye
24 October 2019
Visually impaired students engage science using adaptive tools. Credit: Carmen Vanderhoof.

Each April, secondary school science teachers gather in the Millennium Science Complex on the University Park campus to investigate how microscale and nanoscale technology impact society. They observe cutting-edge research currently underway and discuss how it can be used in the classroom, industry, the marketplace, and the daily lives of the communities where they live.

These annual teacher workshops are just one part of the broader impacts work done by the Center for Nanoscale Science at Penn State, a National Science Foundation–supported Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC). The center comprises more than 40 research faculty and 40 graduate students as well as numerous research associates and postdocs in seven departments across three colleges.

“When learning about nanomaterials, the first thing people must understand is a sense of scale,” said Kristin Dreyer, education strategy and planning manager of the MRSEC. “One nanometer, which is about 10 atoms across, is far too small for the naked eye to see. This frame of reference is difficult for the average person to grasp, but it is where our researchers are working, and we want as many people as possible to be familiar with it and know how it can affect them.”

Dreyer, a former high school science teacher, is enthusiastic about making science accessible by moving current researchers out of the lab and into the public eye. Part of this involves motivating scientists to do the talking. “Science affects every facet of life, and today part of the job of being a scientist is making the public aware of that connection and getting them enthusiastic about it,” she said. “We constantly need to recruit the next generation of scientists, and today’s researchers are critical to motivating the next generation to go into STEM.”

The Center for Nanoscale Science was launched in the early 2000s. Now nearing the end of its third six-year grant period, it has a strong track record of outreach and education programs designed to encourage graduate students and faculty to reach out to K–12 teachers, children, undergraduate students, and other members of the public. “We plan our events with two things in mind,” said Tiffany Mathews, the center’s program co-director for education and outreach. “We have to consider both the value to the target audience we are trying to impact and the value that the researchers themselves get out it. Both are important.” Graduate students, for example, gain valuable experience by participating in these outreach events that will help them pursue careers in academia or industry. “We do world-class research, but our students learn even more than that,” Mathews said. “They gain soft skills. Scientists need to know how to talk and communicate. Tech skills take them very far, but the soft skills will take them further. Our goal is to give grad students the whole package.”

The center has reached some important and unique audiences through its efforts to broaden participation and encourage diversity and inclusion in STEM. For the past three years, in partnership with the Eberly College of Science’s Office of Science Outreach, MRSEC graduate students served as science mentors to provide a summer STEM experience for college-bound students who are blind or visually impaired. Instructional faculty at Penn State developed, adapted, and taught the program content. Then in 2018, they led a conference workshop for teachers and other educational professionals to share what they learned over the years teaching blind and visually impaired students. They showed how adaptive teaching methods can help these students fully engage with science in more-accessible ways.

The linkage between nanoscale researchers and students who are blind or visually impaired may not seem obvious at first, however, it is crystal clear to scientists. “Nano by its very nature is too small to see,” said Dreyer. “Therefore, scientists use adaptive technologies to control matter and learn about nature on the nanoscale. Individuals who are visually impaired also use adaptive tools and skills to accomplish things they can’t see.”

The center’s outreach endeavors complement its core focus on interdisciplinary research. The center serves as a primary nanoscale-science arm of the Materials Research Institute, whose multiple user facilities demonstrate Penn State’s commitment to providing the infrastructure needed to explore and understand the nanoscale world.