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Professor helps local children imagine how to use tiny particles to build big things

Published July 5, 2012

Dozens upon dozens of elementary school students jammed the lobby of the Fargo Public Library’s James Carlson branch in south Fargo on June 28. They waited to hear not from a sports star, but from a scientist.

More than 60 kids, plus their parents, packed the Community Room of the James Carlson Library to learn about nanoscience. Led by Kalpana Katti, university distinguished professor and professor of civil engineering at North Dakota State University, students were taken on a journey to discover everything from how tall they are in nanometers, to dreaming how they might use nanotechnology in the future.

Holding up a yardstick, Katti asked students how long it measured. “A meter,” came a chorus of replies.

In her presentation, “Nanoscience: It’s Itsy-Bitsier Than Teeny-Tiny!” the third through sixth graders learned that a nanometer can’t be seen without a microscope. “You are going to see what’s the big deal about something so small,” said Katti to her rapt audience.

“I am 1.6 billion nanometers tall,” said the petite Katti, as adults chuckled in the background. Every child had their own opportunity to measure and record their height in nanometers, underscoring how tiny these building blocks of science really are. To understand scale, she told them the length of a piece of chewing gum measures 75,000,000 nanometers. Or they could compare a tiny marble with the size of the planet Earth.

“Scientists understand how things work. Engineers build things. With nanotechnology, you build large objects with these very small nanoparticles and it opens up a whole different way of doing things,” she said.

Professor Katti also wants kids to understand the concept of top down and bottom up. “Often when we make things, we start big and make small. With nanotechnology, we start with little tiny objects.”

NDSU graduate students Him Upadhyay from Nepal, Avinash Ambre from India and Chunju Gu from China assisted at the event. They are pursuing doctoral degrees in civil engineering and materials and nanotechnology at NDSU.

At the event coordinated by the Fargo Public Library, the younger students occupied the floor and chairs, with standing room only, and a line forming out the door, wondering what they would learn from their college counterparts.

Kids attending the program also received a paper on which they could measure the length of their hands in nanometers. “Do you measure from the thumb or the palm?” asked one girl.

Students received a brief history of nanotechnology too, as Katti mentioned Richard Feynman, considered the father of nanotechnology. “There is a book in this library called, ‘Surely you are joking, Mr. Feynman!’ that I’d encourage you to check out.”

To introduce the concept of fullerenes made of carbon molecules, and buckyballs, which resemble a soccer ball and are composed of hexagons and pentagons with a carbon atom, Katti explained to students that the human body is made mostly of carbon. “What else is made of carbon?”  

“Diamonds!” exclaimed one student. “You are a smart kid,” said Katti, encouraging the student, a comment she repeated numerous times during the event.

They also learned about carbon nanotubes, first discovered in soot. Katti explained they could be used to make things that are stronger than steel. “How cool is that? she asked.

Katti pointed out that nanotechnology is used today in products such as sunscreen, medicines, computers, sporting goods and clothing.  But she also encouraged kids to imagine the future of things made of nanoparticles. These could include drugs delivered directly to targeted cells to fight disease, nanopaint on bridges in which paint can indicate if there are structural problems, self-cleaning concrete made of nanoparticles, cars that don’t require washing, glass windows on buildings that don’t need to be cleaned or flexible TV screens on a wall.

“Nanotechnology will change our lives,” Katti said.

She also noted that things in nature such as seashells are examples of how nature uses nanotechnology and by studying nature, scientists learn even more that could lead to such things as engineering bone tissue.

Katti encouraged the potential future scientists and engineers to always ask questions. 

“Always ask why. That is the most important question. We need inquisitive minds like yours. It’s not maybe so necessary that you are good in science and math, but that you have excitement about the subject. You need to love it. Good happens later.”

Kids lined up to receive white, cardboard cutouts that they could take home and make into a model of a buckyball. Third grader Andy Tischer from Fargo certainly enjoyed the session. “They had really cool pictures of things under the microscope!”

His mother Maureen said they visited a children’s museum with a nanoscience exhibit and he was hooked on the subject. The blond 8-year-old came bounding out of Katti’s session. “Mom, that thing that I wanted to be before, a chemist. Now I think I want to be a civil engineer!”


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Vice President for University Relations
North Dakota State University
Phone: +1 (701) 231-1068 - Fax: (701) 231-1989
Campus address: Old Main 204
Mailing address: Dept 6000 PO Box 6050, Fargo, ND 58108-6050
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Last Updated: Thursday, August 08, 2013 8:33:23 AM