Children learn about nanotechnology

Heather L. Mueller

A team of a dozen third- and fourth-grade students forcefully stepped on the clear, white, sticky floor mat to remove the dust from their shoes before eagerly suiting up in full-body cleanroom suits at the University’s Nanofabrication Center in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science building Friday.

Dressed in the white “bunny suits” used to keep dust and dirt particles out of the nanofabrication labs, the two teams – named the Nano Monkey Legends and the Robo Monkey Bandits – called out “nano” and smiled while posing for a group photo. The monkey-themed team names stem from school tradition.

Delaney Perkins, a third-grader at Eisenhower Elementary School in Hopkins, where the 12 students attend, said the bunny suits are worn “so that dead hair and skin don’t get into the nanotechnology stuff.”

The tour gave Minnesota students participating in the 2006 FIRST LEGO League “Nanoquest” competition an opportunity to see nanotech labs and learn from experts and researchers in the University’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center.

The bunny-suit station was the first stop on their tour of the University’s Nanofabrication Center and Characterization Facility.

The groups were divided into three tours of 150 to 200 students.

Gypsy Rogers, an Internet business consultant who has coached for LEGO League at Eisenhower for two years, took the tour Friday with his two teams to get ideas for the research end of the competition, where students will make a LEGO robot and use robotics made by FIRST. The robotics company’s name is an acronym of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

Teams will present final research presentations and robots at regional competitions and at the state competition in St. Louis Park on Jan. 20.

According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative Web site, nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly one to 100 nanometers, smaller than molecules and atoms.

Nanotechnology projects at the University encompass medicine, electronics and homeland security.

Deb Mans, program director for the Minnesota FIRST LEGO League, said the state has around 270 league teams and ranks in the top five states in the nation for participation.

Teams begin their projects when topics are released in early September. Past years’ themes include “Ocean Odyssey” and “Mission Mars.”

Mans said the teams visited the University to continue research on nanotechnology for the competition.

Robots compete on a 4-by-8 table with 10 specific missions representing nanotechnology applications, including the space elevator mission and the stain-resistant fabric mission.

Missions are judged on a balance of factors besides robot performance.

“They’re trying to instill the values of teamwork, and even if their robot fails, they had good design,” Mans said. “You can still have good points there, or maybe they can still have good research.”

After the competition, each student receives an award for participation.

“They always come out with a positive aspect,” Mans said. “Their robot can fail on them the night before or the day of, but if they have their presentation, they have their teamwork.”

Mans said the program doesn’t fit everyone.

“Some kids think they’re coming in just to play with LEGOs and of course then they’re disappointed when they have to learn there’s a little bit more, including a little research,” she said.

Rogers said his team spent 10 hours this past week building robots. Each student, he said, participated in various aspects of the project.

Rogers said the competition teaches students to solve problems as a team using critical thinking.

“The kids have to build their own robots, design their own robots and program their own robots,” he said.

Rogers said he spent the majority of the practice time teaching the students geometry, logic, flow and loops.

“And for third-graders, that’s pretty advanced,” he said.

The teams receive kits with motors and sensors for the construction of the LEGOs. Teams can add on to the robot, but must follow guidelines.

“As long as it’s LEGO brand LEGOs, it’s allowed to be part of your robot,” Rogers said. “You get a kit that has the base for your robot’s robotics, but then we add in a lot of just random LEGOs too.”

Families often donate LEGOs from their homes to the project, Rogers said.

INSciTE, Innovation in Science and Technology Education, sponsors Minnesota FIRST LEGO League.