Students’ cars drive the power of nanotechnology


Fuel-cell-powered balsa-wood cars are driving students from Broadlands, Ill.-based Heritage High School into the age of nanotechnology. Working under the tutelage of teachers Suzanne Fuller, Carolyn McIntyre, and Debra Welch, Heritage students created six cars and recently “raced” them in front of the whole school to demonstrate what atomic-sized technology can do. Frank Holcomb, a fuel-cell project leader at the University of Illinois-based Construction Engineering Research Laboratory, was a guest speaker at the race.

The students say their experiments are based on a practical concern: the search for alternative fuels.

“These technologies are going to affect our lives,” said senior Payton Judy of the molecular technologies the Heritage teachers learned at a Nanotechnology Teacher Enhancement Program (CU4NTEP) at the University of Illinois (UI) last summer and subsequently brought back to their classrooms.

In January 2006, the Champaign Community Unit School District #4 was awarded a $250,000 grant for a project called CU4NTEP. The school district was collaborating with the Center for Nanoscale Chemical-Electrical-Mechanical Manufacturing Systems (Nano-CEMMS) at the University of Illinois and several other organizations on the project.

From left: Students Katie Rumer, Jacob McCormick, Matthew Barnes, and Rosanne Dodd, from Broadlands, Ill.-based Heritage High School, build a balsa-wood car that runs on a fuel cell. Photo by John Dixon
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Planning for the program for area high school teachers started about two years ago when Marty Atwater, deputy director of the UI’s Center for Nanoscale Manufacturing Systems, and Sean McLaughlin, head of the area’s Education for Employment Services offices, discussed launching a joint, multi-faceted program to help teachers learn about future technology and how they can use it to get students’ attention.

“Teachers who apply are encouraged to form teams,” Atwater said. “That’s what’s unique about this because teachers on the teams don’t usually work together.” The Heritage team, for example, included McIntyre, who teaches career and technical education, Welch, a science teacher, and Fuller, a business teacher. Other teams included chemistry and math teachers as well.

“We wanted to find ways school districts located near the UI could benefit from the resources at the UI, and this is only one of the projects,” McLaughlin said. “It’s a pretty unique program. There aren’t many partnerships between college and high schools preparing students to work in fields like nanotechnology. We believe nanotechnology will have a major impact in economics, and we need to get ahead of the game, prepare students, keep jobs here [in the Midwest].”

Teachers say they’re excited about the opportunity to spend time on campus learning about what’s new so they can pass it on to their students. They spent two weeks on campus last summer learning how to build devices powered by fuel cells, laminar flow devices, robots, 3D printers, and other technologies and why and how they work. They returned four times during the school year to exchange ideas about how they use the information in the classroom and to get tips from their UI mentors.

“It’s really awesome,” Fuller said of Heritage. “I was afraid the whole nanotechnology thing would be over my head, but the UI faculty members did a good job of explaining it and restating it. I feel like I can make it understandable. And by including rural districts, we have access to the same resources as larger schools. The program levels the playing field.”

So far, teachers have coordinated projects to help students make Lego cars (see related article, “Lego my nano,” Small Times, January/February 2007, p. 4) and robots.

-Marcy Koff