Lego my nano


Small tech can be building block for youth education

The world’s favorite building blocks company embraced the world of nanotech this year by making “Nano Quest” the theme for its FIRST Lego League (FLL) 2006 Challenge. The international annual robotics competition for kids ages 9 to 14 is co-sponsored by the Lego company and FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a non-profit group that strives to introduce children to the joys of science and technology.

This year, 6,000 FLL teams took on the nanotech-themed challenge, which required them to research and present a paper on how nanotechnology can be used to solve real world problems, and build a robot that can complete nine engineering missions in less than three minutes.

Every mission has its own nanotech theme - self assembly, smart medicine, nanotube strength - and is designed to help the students think about the real-world applications of nanotech. The application of these themes included starting the self-alignment of atoms by causing angled blue nanotube segments to align horizontally end to end; targeting medicine to reach only a specific problem spot by releasing a Buckyball containing medicine into a specific channel of an arm bone; and delivering an adenosine triphosphate (ATP) molecule to power a molecular motor, causing it to spin and release energy.

From left to right, Lego FIRST competitors Corrin La Bella, Briana Wallisch, Alex Hrotko, Patrick Caldwell and Arek McCoy of St. Vincent DePaul elementary school in Stirling, N.J. Photo by Mary La Bella
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The teams have six weeks to complete their robots and presentations in time for competitions, which begin locally and advance to regional, state, and national competitions, with finalists attending an international competition in April in Atlanta.

For Sandy Wozniak, a teacher and team coach at Mount Olive Middle School in Budd Lake, N.J., which offers a daily elective course in robotics as part of its eighth grade curriculum, the real world implications of the smart medicine mission were significant. “I have breast cancer, and to see how nanotechnology can be used to target specific cancer cells instead of your whole body really hits home for me,” she said.

Her team was equally impressed with the environmental applications of nanotechnology that it discovered during its research efforts. The group ultimately presented an idea for using nanobots to clean up oil spills and save wildlife.

“Nanotech can make a big difference in how we help the environment,” said Mt. Olive eighth grader and team member Marissa Bello. “Even though it’s a small topic, it’s a pretty big deal.”

“I didn’t know what nanotechnology was before I did the competition,” admitted Corrin La Bella, a seventh grade competitor from St. Vincent DePaul elementary school in Stirling, N.J. “But I learned that it’s used for lots of things in everyday life.”

Her team came up with an ingestible nano-camera that can target and photograph cancerous cells. “It’s still in its infancy stage, but some day it could help scientists learn more about cancer and possibly lead to a cure,” she said.
- Sarah Fister Gale