Ravaioli working to introduce nanotechnology to younger students


Susan Kantor, ECE ILLINOIS

Umberto Ravaioli
Umberto Ravaioli

Nanotechnology isn’t something most seventh graders have ever considered. But a collaborative project between universities throughout the country is trying to change that.

The National Center for Learning and Teaching in Nanoscale Science and Engineering is a multi-university center lead by Northwestern that aims to research nanotechnology education from middle school through college. ECE Professor Umberto Ravaioli is the principal investigator of Illinois’ subcontract, and works with Chemical Engineering Professor Richard Braatz.

The project began five years ago with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Each university researches different aspects of nanotechnology education. For example, the group at Purdue University researches the professional development of teachers, while the Northwestern group studies the creation of undergraduate courses.

“It’s been interesting because we put together engineers, scientists, and people in education, who all have different communities and different ways of looking at the problems,” Ravaioli said. “A lot of the initial effort was to understand each other and match our goals and interests. In the end, we all learned from each other.”

Ravaioli and Braatz have been developing materials to educate both teachers and students. Braatz has designed experiments for the classroom, while Ravaioli has worked on creating interactive online tutorials.

Improving nanotechnology curriculum for undergraduates is less difficult since students have been exposed to more advanced math and science. But one of the biggest challenges for younger students is integrating nanotechnology into the existing standards for topics such as chemistry, math, and physics.

Younger students wouldn’t necessarily be taught nanotechnology, but they would learn what nanoscale is.

“For somebody who does it, it sounds so simple,” Ravaioli said. “It’s not so easy to abstract the concept of size when you go to something you cannot see. Once you go down below the size of the head of a pin, pretty much everything is the same size in the mind of somebody who does not understand the scales.”

Just as a mountain is larger than an ant, a virus is larger than an atom. This type of example would be interwoven into the current curricula as to not impart misconceptions while teaching chemistry or physics. Since some teachers may not have much experience in nanotechnology, a significant portion of the center is dedicated to professional development courses.

The project is now at the end of its five-year grant. A proposal to continue the project has been submitted, and Ravaioli is waiting to learn the results.

“I think we have a good plan, a good proposal, and a good team,” Ravaioli said.

Ravaioli said they are ready to begin releasing some initial modules. If the project is renewed, Ravaioli said they will continue material development and implementation, expand the number of topics, and eventually work with politicians to implement nanotechnology into state education standards.

“We have big plans if we get renewed,” Ravaioli said. “We would like to impact the whole country, go coast to coast, and have many different partners and start propagating material, while at the same time, getting feedback.”

Ravaioli stressed the importance of nanotechnology in the workplace, as it is perceived as an area of future growth.

“It’s an effort that needs to be done,” Ravaioli said. “We cannot give up on it. Otherwise, there’s no future for our economy and our industry. You cannot just have a few good schools that train elite students. There has to be an effort that eventually will impact everybody.”