Blasting wafers, twisting wires,
When engineer Pilar Herrera-Fierro told this to sixth-graders at Nanocamp last week, their eyes grew wide between their hairnets and face masks.
"That's kind of scary," nanocamper Soumya Vhasure mumbled.
Vhasure and the other students were draped in the kind of paper suits engineers wear in parts of the Lurie Nanofabrication Facility (LNF). In the clean room there, sensitive nanotechnology experiments and manufacturing takes place. Filters, scrubbers and fans suck dust out of the air so it doesn't clog nano-scale devices like integrated electronic circuits.
"You wear the suit to protect the clean room from you, but you also need to add aprons, gloves and goggles to protect you from the clean room," Herrera-Fierro explained.
The twice-a-year Nanocamp for middle school and high school students is one of many educational outreach efforts the LNF undertakes.
The engineering staff also hosts field trips for individual schools. They hold events to educate science teachers. And they support undergraduate research. It's all part of the facility's role as one of 13 members of the National Science Foundation's National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN).
"One of the missions of the network is to educate the public in general, including younger students. We're trying to motivate them to go into careers in science and technology," said Sandrine Martin, an engineer who is the education coordinator for NNIN at U-M. "It's always amazing to see these kids who are driven."
Nicolus Whitfield, an eighth-grader who aspires to be an automotive designer, found Nanocamp online when he did a Web search after attending the auto show.
He's already thinking of ways to apply what he learned at camp.
Shape memory alloys the subject of one session are materials that can, in a sense, remember their shape and revert back to it when heated.
Students took straight wires, bent and twisted them and then dropped them into vials of hot water. The wires snapped straight again.
These metals are used today in eyeglasses. Instructors asked students to think of their own applications.
"If you got into a car accident," Whitfield said, "maybe you could just pour some hot water on the car and it would go back to the right shape."
While Whitfield inspected the innards of a cell phone, others dissected a Macintosh Classic II. Engineer Nadine Wang explained how computers have evolved from mammoth machines to sleek laptops.
"How old were you when you first used a computer?" Wang asked. "Can you even remember? The first time I used a computer, I was in college."
For seven hours close to 50 students moved from activity to activity at the camp. A favorite was wet chemistry.
There, students learned first hand the principles behind masking and lithography the process used to etch grooves into silicon chips for integrated circuits.
Campers used this process to decorate mini silicon chips.
"I'm experiencing some technical difficulty," said Derek Wu, a ninth-grader who blasted his wafer across the table with a zealous puff of air from the hand-held dryer.
It got stuck to the table because it was still wet. With tweezers and some help from an instructor, Wu was able to pry it up.
The student sees nanotechnology in his future.
"I want to be a doctor," Wu said, "and nanotechnology is an emerging field in medicine."
Whitfield said the camp impressed him.
"It surpassed what I suspected," he said. "It's showing us how nanotechnology is going to change the future. Science fiction may become reality."