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Natural Nanotechnology: Examples of Creating a Culture of Outreach with Accessible and Adaptable Modules

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Chemical Engineering Courses in Emergent Areas

Tagged Division

Chemical Engineering

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Paper Authors


Virginia A. Davis Auburn University Orcid 16x16

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Dr.Virginia A. Davis’ research is primarily focused on using fluid phase processing to assemble cylindrical nanomaterials into larger functional materials. Targeted applications include optical coatings, 3D printed structures, light-weight composites, and antimicrobial surfaces. Her national awards include selection for the Fulbright Specialist Roster (2015), the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Nanoscale Science and Engineering Forum’s Young Investigator Award (2012), the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (2010), and a National Science Foundation CAREER Award (2009). Her Auburn University awards include the Excellence in Faculty Outreach (2015), an Auburn University Alumni Professorship (2014), the Auburn Engineering Alumni Council Awards for Senior (2013) and Junior (2009) Faculty Research, the Faculty Women of Distinction Award (2012), and the Mark A. Spencer Creative Mentorship Award (2011). Dr. Davis is the past chair of Auburn’s Women in Science and Engineering Steering Committee (WISE) and the faculty liaison to the College of Engineering’s 100 Women Strong Alumnae organization which is focused on recruiting, retaining and rewarding women in engineering. She was also the founding advisor for Auburn’s SHPE chapter.
Dr. Davis earned her Ph.D. from Rice University in 2006 under the guidance of Professor Matteo Pasquali and the late Nobel Laureate Richard E. Smalley. Prior to attending Rice, Dr. Davis worked for eleven years in Shell Chemicals’ polymer businesses in the US and Europe. Her industrial assignments included manufacturing, technical service, research, and global marketing management; all of these assignments were focused on enabling new polymer formulations to become useful consumer products.

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Many engineering faculty and students may have good intentions for conducting outreach. However, enthusiastic intentions are easily thwarted by difficulty coming up with an idea lack of preparation time, difficulty procuring materials and need for specialized space. In addition, recruiting a diverse next generation of engineers requires engaging not only K-12 students but also their families and their teachers. These groups may view engineering and nanotechnology as intimidating, difficult to comprehend, or even scary. They may also have preconceived ideas about “what an engineer looks like.” Facilitators of outreach activities can worsen these problems with overly detailed explanations, a lack of confidence in their own understanding, and/or a lack of diversity among outreach facilitators. All of these challenges can be overcome by creating a culture of outreach where faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students work as a team to develop and implement outreach activities. As students develop a passion for, and confidence in, leading outreach activities they can train other students reducing the burden on faculty time. Connecting engineering content to nature and art can overcome participant misconceptions and facilitate engagement. This paper describes two modules developed by chemical engineering and education students under an NSF Math Science Partnership Grant: 1) Why are Abalone Seashells so Strong and Shiny, and 2) Finding the Nano in the Trees. The first module was largely developed by a chemical engineering undergraduate researcher. The second module was developed by a team of education students and a chemical engineering graduate students. Both activities have been disseminated in multiple formats including the SECME Summer Institute for teachers, K-12 classrooms, university open houses, and student organizations’ outreach activities. In the abalone module, students are given antacid, calcium supplements, and baby abalone sea shells. They are asked about similarities and differences and to hypothesize which material will break most and least easily. Participants of all ages enjoy testing the toughness of the materials by dropping fishing weights through PVC pipe onto the objects. From the mass and drop height, they can determine that the “strongest” material is the thin abalone sea shell. They are then given a baked seashell, and can easily break it. This facilitates explanation of how abalone’s strength (and appearance) are the result of its nanoscale brick and mortar structure and cooking the shells weakens the mortar. Depending on the audience quantitative calculations of energy absorption can be performed, protein denaturation can be described, or biomimetic nanomaterials can be discussed in more detail. The second activity builds on chemical engineering’s long history with the paper industry. In this STEM to STEAM activity participants make decorative paper, and are then asked if there is something smaller than the pulp they used to make the paper and what would happen if they assembled this smaller material. They are then given aqueous dispersions of cellulose nanocrystals and produce birefringent iridescent films by drop casting samples on slides. The success of both modules has been related to the hands on nature of the activities, the ready availability of materials and that they can easily be implemented with little preparation using portable materials and equipment. For example, the abalone module was conducted at both a STEM after school program for at risk youth, and the Tuskegee Science and Technology Open House with less than ten minutes of preparation by the SHPE officers running the activity. It was also implemented in a more in depth format to introduce experimental design, energy calculations and unit conversions. Broad adaptation of the Nano in the Trees module has been impeded by the need for an optical microscope, but this is being overcome by using cell phone cameras and polarized film. In addition to these specific modules, national programs such as NanoDays have not only introduced numerous communities to nanotechnology they have given a diverse group of students confidence in leading outreach not only while attending a university but after graduation.

Davis, V. A. (2016, June), Natural Nanotechnology: Examples of Creating a Culture of Outreach with Accessible and Adaptable Modules Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.27329

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