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First-Year Engineering Students’ Communication of Nanotechnology Size & Scale in a Design Challenge

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session


Tagged Division

Multidisciplinary Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.609.1 - 24.609.24



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Paper Authors


Kelsey Joy Rodgers Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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Kelsey Rodgers is currently pursuing her PhD in engineering education at Purdue University. She is a member of the Network for Computational Nanotechnology (NCN) education research team. She conducts research within the First-Year Engineering Program to help understand what and how students are learning about nanotechnology. Her current projects involve investigating students' understanding of size and scale concepts, the cross-disciplinary nature of nanotechnology, and the progression of students' simulation abilities in a nanotechnology context.

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Yi Kong Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Yi Kong is a doctoral student in biology education and a graduate research assistant for the Network for Computational Nanotechnology (NCN) education research team at Purdue University. She received her M.S. in agriculture in Fishery Resources from Huazhong Agricultural University and B.S. in Biological Science from Shaanxi Normal University in China. Her research includes evaluating first-year engineering students’ communication of nanoscience concepts through project-based-learning activities.

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Heidi A. Diefes-Dux Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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Heidi A. Diefes-Dux is a Professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. She received her B.S. and M.S. in Food Science from Cornell University and her Ph.D. in Food Process Engineering from the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue University. She is a member of Purdue’s Teaching Academy. Since 1999, she has been a faculty member within the First-Year Engineering Program, teaching and guiding the design of one of the required first-year engineering courses that engages students in open-ended problem solving and design. Her research focuses on the development, implementation, and assessment of model-eliciting activities with authentic engineering contexts. She is currently the Director of Teacher Professional Development for the Institute for P-12 Engineering Research and Learning (INSPIRE) and a member of the educational team for the Network for Computational Nanotechnology (NCN).

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Krishna Madhavan Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Krishna Madhavan is an Assistant Professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. He is also the Education Director and co-PI of the NSF-funded Network for Computational Nanotechnology ( He specializes in the development and deployment of large-scale data and visualization based platforms for enabling personalized learning. His work also focuses on understanding the impact and diffusion of learning innovations. Dr. Madhavan was the Chair of the IEEE/ACM Supercomputing Education Program 2006 and was the curriculum director for the Supercomputing Education Program 2005. In January 2008, he was awarded the NSF CAREER award for work on transforming engineering education through learner-centric, adaptive cyber-tools and cyber-environments. He was one of 49 faculty members selected as the nation’s top engineering educators and researchers by the US National Academy of Engineering to the Frontiers in Engineering Education symposium.

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First-Year Engineering Students’ Communication of Nanotechnology Size & Scale in a Design ChallengeThe mysterious world of the nanoscale can stimulate young people’s imagination and inspiretheir interest in science and technology.1 While nanotechnology is a highly engaging topic forstudents, it entails concepts that are difficult to understand and need to be carefully consideredwhen incorporating nanotechnology into classroom instruction. The big idea of size and scale isa difficult concept for students to grasp, but is the most fundamental concept.2,3 Size refers to thequalitative property of an object.4 It is the physical magnitude, extent, or bulk of the object thatdescribes its characteristics.2 Scale refers to the quantitative property of an object.4 It is ameasurement tool that is used by scientist to study objects and processes, which containsanalytical dimensions with ascending and descending steps.5 This study was guided by thefollowing research question: How do student teams communicate their ideas concerning size andscale concepts through their nanotechnology-based design projects?This study was conducted within a First-Year Engineering course at a large Midwesternuniversity. Students were required to create a graphical-user interface (GUI) to communicatefundamental concepts of nanotechnology to their peers, including size and scale. The finalsubmissions of 30 teams were analyzed in this study. The theoretical framework for this studywas grounded theory and the strategies of inquiry were open coding and axial coding.6 Theestablished categories were mapped to existing literature (e.g. Magana, Brophy, & Bryan,2012).7Although all 30 teams showed some attempt to communicate nano size and scale, only 18 teams(60%) communicated what a nanometer is in comparison to meters, inches, or other scaledmeasurements. Only three teams (10%) stated that the nanoscale included measurements of 1 to100 nanometers. Twenty-one teams (70%) presented a quantitative analysis of a single object,demonstrating the concept of scale. Sixteen teams (53%) presented a qualitative and/orquantitative analysis of two or more things, demonstrating size and/or scale. Misconceptionsconcerning size and scale were identified.Many teams focused on the relationship between the nano and macro scales. Very few teamsincorporated both the atomic and micro scales in their project. Magana et al. (2012) explains thatthe bigger the difference between sizes of objects, the more difficult to comprehend thequantitative proportion between the objects (i.e. how many times bigger).7 This analysis showsthat students may need further prompting to help them focus on establishing the differencesbetween the nanoscale and the atomic and micro scales. As more teams incorporated scaleconcepts than size concepts, it may be beneficial to prompt students to include content thatcovers both size and scale concepts.This analysis provides directions for next steps in both the curriculum and instruction design forteaching size and scale. The potential misconceptions identified in this study indicate a need forfurther research on size and scale misconceptions while informing some starting points. References1. Chang, R.P.H. (2006). A call for nanoscience education. Nano Today, 1, 6-7.2. Delgado, C. (2009). Development of a research-based learning progression for middle school through undergraduate students’ conceptual understanding of size and scale. Retrieved from Deep Blue Dissertations and Thesis Collection. ( Stevens, S.Y., Sutherland, L.M., & Krajcik, J.S. (2009). The big ideas of nanoscale science & engineering: A guidebook for secondary teachers. National Science Teachers Association: United States of America, pp. 5-72.4. Magana, A.J., Brophy, S.P, & Newby T. (2008). Scaffolding student’s conceptions of proportional size and scale cognition with analogies and metaphors. Proceedings of the 115th Annual ASEE Conference and Exposition, Pittsburgh, PA.5. Gibson, C. C., Ostrom, E., & Ahn, T. K. (2000). The concept of scale and the human dimensions of global change: a survey. Ecological economics, 32, 217-239.6. Strauss, A. & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.7. Magana, A.J., Brophy, S.P, & Bryan, L.A. (2012). An integrated knowledge framework to characterize and scaffold size and scale cognition (FS2C). International Journal of Science Education, 34(14), 2181-2203.

Rodgers, K. J., & Kong, Y., & Diefes-Dux, H. A., & Madhavan, K. (2014, June), First-Year Engineering Students’ Communication of Nanotechnology Size & Scale in a Design Challenge Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--20500

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