New face of science under microscope

18th June 2010 at 01:00
Nanoscience and technology are brought to life at The Glasgow Academy, thanks to cutting-edge resources from the EU

Many of us couldn't even spell nanoscience, never mind explain what it is. But The Glasgow Academy participants this afternoon have done their homework and, judging by the heated exchanges that develop, are passionately committed to their positions.

Billed as a dramadebatetalkshow, the event starts slowly, as the audience in the school hall gets to grips with the unfamiliar format. But the sharpness and energy of host Hamish Wyllie, S5, skilfully keeps it going, as momentum gradually builds.

"Nanoscience and technology will have a huge impact on our lives," says Fran Macdonald, head of science at The Glasgow Academy. "But most of us know nothing about it."

This was brought home to her forcefully a few months ago, she says, when she got involved in a pilot study of nanotechnology resources for schools from the European Commission. "We're one of only two UK schools taking part in the pilot. So a few months ago we did a prior evaluation to find out what the pupils knew. The answer was `nothing'.

"They couldn't even understand the questions: `What's a scanning electron microscope?' or `What's a nanoparticle?' So we're starting from a low level of knowledge in schools. It is also a very difficult topic."

Aimed at S2-3 pupils, and involving the science staff at the academy as well as some skilled seniors, the nanotechnology day is structured around the EC resources in the morning and the talkshow in the afternoon. There are guest speakers from the Beatson Institute for cancer research and Glasgow University, who talk about medical and military applications of nanoscience.

For some students these are the outstanding parts. "I'll remember about cancer and your chances of surviving it," says James Mortimer, S2, who plays a pro-nanotech doctor in the afternoon drama. "They are still low for some diseases - 97 per cent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, for instance, will die."

Linnea Macy, S2, who plays a sporting star whose knee had been fixed by nano-medicine, found the second speaker most memorable, she says. "He was talking about material that would stop a bullet, and he said that in our lifetimes there would be wars about water."

Cameron Cooke, S4, who had earlier donned body armour and ran around the hall as part of the nano-engineering talk, certainly remembers that, he says. "They were trying to make a bulletproof tent so you wouldn't have to wear that heavy vest. But I was also interested in what the video said about machines made of individual molecules. You could do pretty much anything you wanted with them."

The lessons and activities did get a few mentions, although not all were favourable. "That's why they're having this pilot," says Mrs Macdonald. "There's too much in some activities, while others don't hold the kids' attention. They are genuinely looking for feedback though, and they will respond to it."

The materials workshop in Rebecca Sowden's classroom was well received, as students did their best to stain cotton, polyester and a new nanofabric with mustard and sauce. The material didn't even get wet, they found, as the water formed tight little beads on the surface.

Nanotechnology often mimics nature, Dr Sowden explains. "So we tried liquids first on our hands and then on leaves and saw how they rolled off. Then we found this new nanomaterial had the same effect."

The reason, explains a busy group of girls, is that the material has a coating of hydrophobic nanoparticles. "We've tested different materials to see if they are hydrophobic or hydrophilic. Cotton and polyester are hydrophilic, which means they absorb water. Nanomaterial is hydrophobic. `Phobic' is like `phobia' - so it wants to avoid it."

But the hit of the day with staff and pupils is the debate, organised by science and drama departments. "We did a lot of cross-curricular work at my last school with obvious subjects such as English," says head of drama, Neil Millar. "But I'm keen to demystify the interface with the arts right across the subjects."

The format for the drama-debate is Mantle of the Experts, he explains. "Participants prepare themselves to discuss a topic from within a role, such as doctor, scientist, government minister. It's not scripted but it works well, even when people (like today) have had no acting experience."

The second half of the one-hour debate confirms this, with the audience warmed up, impassioned exchanges between participants, and the role of the host Hamish transformed from provocateur to calming influence. Time runs out well before the youngsters' enthusiasm.

"That was fantastic," says Mrs Macdonald. "The whole day has been incredibly useful. Before this pilot, I'd sometimes get excited and start telling them about nanotechnology, then I'd see their eyes glaze over. This has enthused them.

"When they hear about nano-technology now, they won't think it's magic or evil. They'll prick up their ears and they will listen with knowledge."


The second call for pilot schools for NanoYou is now open. Aimed at introducing 11 to 18-year-olds to nanoscience and nanotechnology, the resources include video, animation, games, workshops, virtual dialogues and experiments based on current research. There are also one-day programmes and lesson modules: "All the documentation will be accessible online and may be downloaded free, and all registered schools can count on online and telephone support."

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