Challenger Center hosts nanoscience event

A 'little' learning

They stood in front of a small table covered with bright green plastic. Noelle Roberts, 12, added a few drops of alcohol to a pipelette half filled with wheat germ. She and her friend Katie Cooper, 13, then cut yarn to create necklaces for their pencap-sized vials.


The two girls on Saturday were exploring DNA structure -- the liquids would coagulate over the day to form the double-helix structure. This was one of many hands-on booths available at the Challenger Learning Center's "Nano Days." The girls are home schooled.

"We both like science," Roberts said. "(The home-school curriculum) has some hands on stuff, but we don't get to do that much experiments, or as much as other kids do."

The free community event at the Challenger Center was the second year residents were invited to explore nanoscience. 

Nanoscience and nanotechnology gained the attention of scientists during the past decade. Working at the molecular level, scientists have discovered molecules behave differently at this miniscule size range (Nanoscale objects are smaller than waves of lights, and specialized electron microscopes are used to view the particles).

A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. A cell membrane is about 10 nanometers.

The Challenger Center received a grant from the National Science Foundation to fund the event, which occurred nationwide.

Booths at the event taught kids the everyday applications of nanoscience, said Kathy East, Challenger Center curriculum director. 

"The technology is very useful for microprocessors, which iPhones and iPads use," she said. "As things continue to get smaller and smaller nanotechnology becomes increasingly important."

Free wallet-sized cards occupied one of the event's booths. Pictures on the front and back of the cards displayed the nano and the macro view of objects. A computer chip resting on the tip of a finger was pictured on one side of a card. Flip the card over and it displayed the chip's transistors, 30 nanometers across, that aid in its processing capability.

Clay nanoparticles have been used in composite materials for cars and packaging, where they offer transparency and strength. Sunscreens use nanoparticulate zinc oxide.

Exploring consumer products was the theme of at least two booths at the event, as sunscreen and nano gold experiments piqued kids' curiosities. Others booths consisted of exploring materials, like hydrogel and film.

Nathan and Valerie White attended the event with their three children. Nathan's 5-year-old son, Johnathan, is particularly interested in science, he said.

Johnanthan, who is home-schooled, stared wide-eyed as Challenger Center volunteer Derek Samara, 22, began instruction at the "worm goo" booth. Samara instructed the 5-year-old to squeeze the blue bottle of goo, sodium alginate, in to a bowl of salt water.

The volunteer then explained the chemical reaction that was taking place, emphasizing the word polymer to Johnathan.

"It started to create an outside shell of polymers, and a polymer is a chain-like molecule," he said.

"It feels like Jell-O," Johnathan said.

His parents encouraged instruction along the way, reiterating the lessons Derek was conveying across the table. The boy squished the small droplet between his fingers and laughed, and the family moved along to the next booth.

Daniel Roberts, Noelle's father, said he prefers home-schooling, because it affords the family more time together.

Last summer, his daughter attended a class about magnetism at the Challenger Center. They hope to take advantage of offered future classes, he said.

"To have an opportunity like this, where we can jump into a subject is great," he said. "It may be something we're not focusing on at the moment, but we can get a lot of good information in one spot."

The Challenger Center has applied to retain a permanent nanoscience exhibit, the status of which should be known within a month, East said.

"The exhibit will be similar to these booths, but something people can come in and dig into year round," she said. "At the very least, we'll be using these lessons at our summer camps."

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at