Underlying this experiment that looked easy enough for a ninth grader to perform was a new realm of science that is as cutting-edge as most of these teachers had ever encountered before — nanoscience. They were using nanocrystalline titania stained with raspberry or spinach juice to absorb enough energy from the sun to create solar cells.
“It’s very high-level, very complicated, and it involves a lot of science,” says Lynn Kim from Fairfax High School, who teaches ninth graders, primarily the children of immigrants, in a school where students speak 150 different languages. “But it’s good that we can take something that’s very cutting-edge back to the classroom.”
Kim and her fellow science teachers from low-income schools across Los Angeles came to UCLA this summer to learn how to invigorate their classes by teaching nanoscience — the science of the tiniest particles that will someday lead to extraordinary advances in medicine and many other fields.
“The teachers are learning a set of experiments to get their students excited and motivated about learning science,” says Sarah Tolbert, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI), a joint enterprise of UCLA and UC Santa Barbara. Working with Tolbert to design the program were graduate students and postdoctoral scholars from CNSI and UCLA’s Materials Creation Training Program, funded by the National Science Foundation.
The nanoscience program is part of the summer offerings of the UCLA Science Project in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. The cost of building the nanoscience experiments was supported by a grant from UCLA’s Center for Community Partnerships.
Participating were teachers from Crenshaw, Fairfax, Carson, Franklin, Jordan and Verdugo Hills. During a lesson in photolithography, they made a tiny piece of a computer chip. Using simple materials, they experimented with the changing properties of nanomaterials and learned about the self-assembly process.
Explains Tolbert: “Scientists working at the nanometer length-scale have the potential to change the properties of materials just by changing their dimensions. This makes work in the field exciting and makes the experiments fun and challenging for both scientists and students.”
The teachers, who will come back to campus during the school year to study other topics as UCLA science fellows, said they want their students to “connect” with this new field. “I’m going to talk to my students about the relevance of nanotechnology in their everyday lives,” says teacher Elizabeth Garcia from Carson High School. “It’s in the coating on their television and computer monitor screens. It’s involved in the L.E.D.s that light up their shoes. It’s used in making the computer chips in their electronic games.”
“Our goal is to improve science education for all students in Los Angeles,” says Irene Swanson, director of the UCLA Science Project. “The program provides a collegial network for science educators from all levels to share expertise and new ideas.”