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by Lisa Del Muro
Teacher, Wheeling High School, IL

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October 10, 2016
Thinking Like a Nanoscientist

by Lisa Del Muro
Teacher, Wheeling High School, IL

(originally posted on

Driving Question: How can we blend new science fields with PBL to challenge students to think like scientists?

Five years ago, I was asked to teach nanotechnology by Wheeling High School’s then principal, Dr. Lopez.  I was very excited, yet nervous. I was not aware of a class like this at the high school level. It was an approach to science not found in our traditional curriculum, yet it was an emerging field that the world of applied science was begging to see in a 21st century high school. It was a tough study but one that would bring our curriculum into the 21st Century especially if the approach would stimulate a broader range of students to look at the science as a career pathway.

Thinking Like a Nanoscientist

My thought was not just to have another science course that gave students a lot to memorize and an artificial lab experience. I wanted students to learn about the “big ideas” in nanoscience and how to use advanced equipment so they could think and work like nanoscientists. They would have to learn how to use four different microscopes to find answers about super small particles of matter and learn discover some very deep ideas in atomic physics. How do I plan for students thinking like scientists with complex material if preparatory through advanced placement students are taking the class?
The answer was to apply Project-Based-Learning (PBL) so all students could learn the problems and methods of thinking that are particular to the scientist. In this way, I knew I was going beyond the traditional approach to a science that I knew from high school. It was also going beyond the PBL units I had been using before Dr. Lopez’s invitation to bring a 21st century course into our curriculum. As it turned out, my hunch was correct.

If you follow these brief Nano-PBL scenarios, you will see how I modified standard PBL design to fit my aim of having students not only learn nanotechnology, but how to think like a nanotechnologists.

To begin, the students first visited a website I set up for the class. The goal was to motivate the students to self-select a nanotechnology topic that interested them. This helped overcome apprehension regarding the scale of the nanotechnology field. Once a subject was chosen, I helped find a mentor in that field. The mentor would help them further narrow their subject matter into a particular interest.
One group in particular had an interest in guns. This led to a general discussion about weapons, and I thought of a Professor from University of Michigan searching for Paleo-Indian remnants to research migration patterns. Students researched flint knapping, an ancient way of making stone tools and weapons, particularly arrowheads. Then, students created stone tools applying flint knapping techniques.

Using a scanning electron microscope (SEM), students researched the characteristics of debitage (chips from making stone tools). The professor provided sediment samples from a site. The site was the Aplena-Amberley ridge, once exposed 10,000 years ago, but now below the waters of Lake Huron. Using SEM and other technology to aid the old science of archeology, students studied the sediment samples. When students found evidence of flint knapping debitage at the bottom of Lake Huron, it provided evidence of the existence of Paleo-Indian hunters along the Aplena-Amberley ridge.


A different student pair with interest in forestry worked with a professor at the Chicago Botanical Gardens. They researched the germination rate of fabaceae seeds, varying the time exposed to simulated prairie fire conditions. Students studied the seed shell with an SEM to determine which conditions best-suited germination. The students found that seeds exposed to too little fire, or too much fire, did not fare well. These students were invited to present their work at a Chicago Wilderness Conference for People and Nature held at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Several people attended their lecture, including an ecologist that was considering applying the lessons from the student’s experiment. The ecologist was considering slow burning larger sections of fields and landscapes, to discourage the germination of invasive Sweet White Clovers.

What I Learned About Meeting Diverse Student Needs

To meet the challenge of having students think like scientists, I found several areas where I had to up my game to the next level of teaching a diverse group via PBL. I found two elements in the PBL unit that required my extra attention.

First, I found it all the more important to check availability of product or material needed for a student’s project prior to green lighting it. With students selecting their own project focus, it was important that I help them find whatever or however strange the materials.

I had a student last year whose project required un-crushed Karaya gum. It was not easy to purchase. Even Amazon did not have it. I found myself calling companies only to discover all U.S. based companies used crushed Karaya gum.  After buying online from a Chinese company failed, I found a former student who had gone back home to India.  He quickly found the Karaya gum and shipped it to me. The student was thankful, delighted, and was able to finish his project.

Second, I found that the PBL presentations when students were being asked to think like nano-scientists was a special opportunity to highlight their budding mindsets. After students complete their project’s written reports, they need to prepare for their PBL-common presentations.  My students began by making a tri-fold presentation to trace their projects’ research and results. This was difficult for many. Their papers were over thirty pages long and distilling the information onto a tri-fold was daunting.  Afterwards, students practiced their oral presentations in the classroom before presenting in a competition where the level of precision and accuracy way especially high. Their self-directed attention to precision and accuracy was important in their development of authentic scientific thinking so they could appropriately communicate the research clearly and concisely.


PBL at the Next Level
Project-Based Learning allows students to understand science in a broader context. Not only does it give all students a chance to learn the content more deeply, it allows them to gain an understanding of scientific equipment in the context of how scientists do. PBL exposes students to the scientific process of finding an interesting and authentic subject to research, narrowing down the issue to a researchable question with high self-interest, doing the science itself, analyzing the findings, and communicating the findings with the mindsets common to the scientists they may want to be. With its emphasis on selection of authentic inquiry in the context of the course, PBL gives students reasons to pursue a special interest in current field of science, go beyond the traditional classroom locked curriculum, and develop their own personalized investigation(s). The emphasis is on how they are learning to think like scientists as much as the particular course content. This self-directed interest in turn, encourages students to further their progress towards careers in science, not only with the knowledge of a complex emerging subject such as nanotechnology, but also with the “how to do” scientific research, thinking and deciding essential for full success.

Follow Lisa on Twitter  @delmuro_whsnano.

Wheeling High School, a P21 Exemplar, serves a socio-economically and ethically diverse population. It features career pathways that stimulate and expand students' horizons about career and post-secondary learning opportunities with PBL and curriculum innovations.


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