We live in the age of nanotechnology. Scientists can now build structures one atom or molecule at a time, like children building with LEGO blocks.
This is leading to completely new paradigms for the design and synthesis of materials: atom manipulation, molecular self-assembly, DNA origami, synthetic biology and nanoelectronics are commonplace in the laboratory.
But for most non-scientists, nanotechnology sounds more like science fiction than something that affects their everyday lives. LEGO2NANO aims to change that. Starting in school. By turning children into amateur nanoscientists, able to grasp the atomic and molecular world that surrounds them.
LEGO2NANO focuses on making the nanoworld more accessible, tangible and comprehensible to school students. The approach is to introduce experiments in the creativity labs that LEGO is currently establishing in 400 schools throughout China.
The experiments are simple. Simple enough that – with the right components and some guidance from their teacher – school children will be able to build and run these experiments by themselves.
The experiments are global. Thanks to the Web, they are not limited to the classroom nor to school hours. The students will share and analyze their experimental data online with children in other schools around the globe.
The experiments are novel. These are not just demonstrations of standard textbook science. They are open-ended enough that they lead to questions even experts can’t answer, and sometimes produce novel scientific results.
And they are designed by young researchers from some of the leading universities around the world.
Is the nanoworld really within the grasp of simple experiments that schoolchildren can carry out? Here are a few examples of phenomena that connect our everyday world to the nanoscale.
• Measuring molecules: It is possible to estimate the size of single molecules using the optical interference of detergent on water. With a piece of paper, it is possible to compress such single molecular layers to form two-dimensional nano films.
• Quantizing current: a loose contact between two copper wires can be used to detect current quantization in metallic nanochannels that form just as a contact breaks. Using a low-cost oscilloscope reveals steplike changes in current that are the hallmark of quantum mechanics.
• Creating nanocrystals: one of the most promising nanomaterials in recent years – a discovery that was awarded a Nobel prize – can be produced with a piece of graphite and scotch tape. This is exactly the same sort of graphite that you can find in every school child’s pencil.
The challenge of LEGO2NANO is to build experiments around such everyday effects that enable students to observe, measure and record nanoscale phenomena, and share their results online.
The ultimate learning goals of LEGO2NANO are to motivate students to enquire about what makes the nanoscale so special and different, and to get hands-on experience about practical aspects of scientific research.