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Arnold School of Public Health


CENR engages K-12 children on the topic of nanomaterials with new program at EdVenture

July 15, 2016 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

Since it was established in 2012 by Professor of Environmental Health Sciences Jamie Lead, the SmartState Center for Environmental Nanoscience and Risk (CENR) has made a major impact in South Carolina and beyond with its efforts to study and apply the science of nanomaterials. They’ve developed innovative techniques for oil cleanup and other nanomaterial applications, they’ve led the scholarly exchange of nanoscience research through supplements, books, and conferences, and they’ve mentored students from high school to the postdoctoral levels.

Lead, who also serves as CENR’s director and SmartState Endowed Chair, and his team have accomplished a lot in four years, but their commitment to advancing the field of nanoscience is only increasing. Their momentum has continued this summer with two CENR doctoral students, Shelby Butz and Samantha McNeal, utilizing their National Science Foundation (NSF) funding to teach K-12 students about nanoscience at Columbia’s EdVenture Children’s Museum.

“Outreach is an important part of the CENR activities, and we particularly want to engage non-specialist audiences in understanding the benefit and risks of nanotechnology and how by the application of high quality science and development, we can maximize benefit and minimize risk,” says Lead.

The idea emerged as a result of collaborative conversations between CENR and EdVenture. “We wanted the information we were presenting to be educational and informative, but we also wanted to keep our audience engaged and promote fun in learning,” says Butz. “After a discussion about ‘shrinking’ the children down to nano-size, we came up with the idea of incorporating NanoGirls.”

Through their interactive program, NanoGirls McNeal (aka NanoSilver) and Butz (aka NanoGold) introduced museum audiences to nanomaterials, their uses and their effects on the environment. McNeal and Butz helped children understand nanomaterials in terms of size (i.e., 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair), where they occur (i.e., naturally, as by-products, man-made), how they behave, and how they can be leveraged to yield positive effects on environmental and human health.

By engaging students through this type of outreach, CENR hopes to both educate students about nanomaterials and stimulate their interest in the field of nanoscience. At the same time, they will collect information about students’ experiences with the program, including measures related to their information retention and enthusiasm and their reactions to formal vs informal learning schemes.

“Being a part of this program is a wonderful opportunity to get kids and the community excited about science,” says McNeal. “We hope that children and their parents we will become more aware of what nanomaterials are and the risks and benefits associated with using them. More importantly, we hope that this programming will spark the interests of kids to engage in science while in school and see the connection between science and solutions to environmental problems that our communities face.”

The program debuted at EdVenture on July 9, prompting an enthusiastic response from attendees. Despite the microscopic size of their discipline, CENR always thinks big. They plan to continue improving the curriculum of this program and possibly transform it into a mobile platform to increase their reach even further.