Nanotechnology helps generate interest in science classes, careers

September 13, 2012

A van parked outside Gallaudet's Elstad Auditorium recently held a glimpse into the future of science. Inside this mobile science theme park were examples of the latest science and technology in the minute--or nano--dimension.

Nanotechnology, as it is called, is the study of applications of things or structures that are less than 100 nanometers--essentially the study of the "super small." (Nano is one billion times smaller than a meter.) This branch of science holds almost unlimited potential for applications, ranging from new cancer treatment drugs, to the design of faster, smaller, and efficient materials, electronic devices, and machines. The new materials include those used in construction and paint production.

The NanoExpress, which welcomed visitors for three hours on September 4, is part of a joint project between Gallaudet and Howard universities, with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) through an award (NSF#1205608) for a "Partnership in Reduced Dimensional Materials (PRDM)" project. It travels to schools from the elementary to university levels, as well as fairs and other public functions to increase awareness of this new era of science, and in the process encourage more youth to consider careers in this exciting and promising field.

Deaf people and minorities, in particular, have always been underrepresented in science and technology careers. "Many may not be aware of the tremendous opportunities that exist or that they have the ability to excel in the science field," said Dr. Paul Sabila, an associate professor in Gallaudet's Department of Chemistry. Helping these groups gain an understanding of their potential in this field is one of the objectives of having the NanoExpress visit Gallaudet. Its presence on campus was made possible through a PRDM grant (NSF#1205608) led by Sabila as Gallaudet principal investigator, and Dr. Charlene Sorensen, co-principal investigator and a professor in the Chemistry program, Department of Science, Technology, and Mathematics.

"We wanted the Gallaudet community to get an introduction to what nanotechnology is," said Sabila. He hopes, through activities such as this, to instill an interest in science among students that will encourage more of them to take chemistry and other science courses at Gallaudet, and, ideally, to choose science as a major. Part of the grant, he said, will allow up to two students to take paid internships in nanotechnology at Gallaudet during the semester, or at Howard or Cornell (Ithaca, N.Y.) universities during the summer.

Another grant (NSF #0611595 ) led by Sabila has permitted him and Gallaudet students to conduct nanotechnology research at Howard.

Both Sabila and Sorensen lead research efforts and coordinate workshops nationwide in areas aimed at the advancement of women and minorities in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. A grant (NSF #0930112) is helping them achieve this goal through a collaboration with George Washington University and the University of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. In addition, Sabila has another grant (NSF #1040094) in collaboration with the University of the District of Columbia which allows Gallaudet science researchers and students to use a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer, an instrument similar to the better known magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.

The turnout was brisk for the NanoExpress, with around two dozen students, plus faculty and staff, taking the tour. "They got to see some of the scientific instruments used in the field, and some even expressed interest in research experience and internship opportunities," said Sabila. "Many of the students who attended showed interest in nanotechnology and taking science courses in general," said Sabila. "They also asked about what sorts of careers are available for people studying nanotechnology." He added that many also expressed interest in applying for internship opportunities in the field.

Note: This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under NSF DMR1 205608. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.