In this interview, Mike Blok, co-founder of Project Nano, an initiative designed to bring nanoscience and nanotechnology into schools using a Phenom desktop scanning electron microscope, speaks about the project and its successes.
Could you give us a little bit of a background for the Foundation and some of the movement forward with Project Nano?
MB: It's kind of a fun story. The Phenom was a project of my neighbor, who happened to be working for FEI at the time. He was wondering if there was an educational application, and we were in the middle of a forensics unit and were offered a tour.
Phenom was definitely the highlight of the tour, and we threw in some samples and came in the next day to our classes with images that the kids were just oohing and aahing over. That was kind of the beginning of the adventure, too.
The following summer I took a class that was offered by Portland State. They had a Phenom and we became pretty proficient users. A few summers later, a colleague and I were the instructors of the class. I think we saw a need for bringing that kind of technology into the classroom.
At that point, I was a 24 year veteran of teaching chemistry and biology, and there's a chance you can get old and crusty at that point, but this tool started to bring a kind of wakeup call to my students, a wakeup call to me, that there's a whole new world that a lot of us haven't ever seen.
One of the spinoffs that's crazy to me is that my chemistry class, not normally used to microscopy, would always ask "hey, is this something we can get the microscopes out for and take a look at?" To me it was a rejuvenation of a career. For the sixth grade teachers that had the ability to be trained in something that's this cool, it's going to change their careers.
Could you relate one of the many examples of how the Phenom has generated excitement for students?
MB: There have been so many great examples of teachers that are doing incredible work. One of my favorites is from Northwest Academy. Her name is Molly Soltani. She has done a water quality study that's allowed students to bring in water samples from their own neighborhood.
She's developed a protocol that dries it out, and they end up with diatoms, which are some of the most amazing creatures in the world to me. I remember the first day that we discovered diatoms in my school. It took us about two hours before anybody really knew what they were. Once we discovered the amazing creatures were everywhere, found in almost all water samples, we were blown away.
Molly's project is fascinating because every student is involved with their own water sample. They then do the dry-down and the sample that goes in to the Phenom allows analysis up to 10 to 15,000X. They then equate that water sample to water quality for the location it was found. She's tied in art students with high-level scientific analysis. In her project, she also Skypes a unique scientist who's in England, so they've really incorporated a worldwide interest in diatoms.
Obviously exposure to microscopy is a great motivator for the young students of this world to be engaged. Why was the Phenom selected for that process?
MB: The Phenom for classroom use is so easy. The sample load is 30 to 45 seconds. Once the sample's in the instrument, students have the ability to magnify up to 100,000 times. What other tool can do that? And then how would you ever bring it into a high school classroom?
That's still an amazing part of this project to me, that students have the ability to measure. We've thrown samples of pollen into tools for whole biology classes, who then have the ability to compare pollen across the whole environment. The project for me is one that allows great analysis, and realistically, the motivation that spins out of that creates little scientists who learn the power of observation, and who learn what analysis can lead to in terms of the next question. The Phenom has been a great tool for that.
I can't believe how many times that I say, "What is that? What's that for? Why is that there?" That's what the Phenom can do.
Could you walk us through the decision-making process your team went through to select the Phenom desktop scanning electron microscope for Project Nano?
MB: The first time I sat down with the Phenom, it was described as "as simple as a digital camera," which for most people was probably simple. For me, I was a little bit afraid of a digital camera, but the Phenom is amazing in terms of its ease of use.
We’ve have second grade students that become proficient in navigating through samples of their favorite breakfast cereal. They're fascinated by what's inside. They're able to use the measurement tools. Teachers, of course, do the sample load and sample prep, but it has been a tool that, especially for high school students, is amazingly easy to use.
We are on a limited schedule in that we have 90 minute classes. We have 35 students per class. How are you ever going to get all of them through their sample analysis and sample image collection? Well, the Phenom's quick. They become very, very proficient at using their 15 or 20 minute rotations. It was a pretty easy decision for us in terms of operation, and then there was also the cost of entry.
Typically you would target high school programs with this type of outreach initiative, and now you're starting to engage students on even a younger level. Can you give me some details on some of the motivation for that?
MB: I think that your typical student is in fear of science. Science is always the difficult subject. What's been fascinating for me in this process is we have art magnets that are totally engaged in the science and the analytical skills required of being a scientist, but they're at an art magnet school.
The tool gets them excited. I will be honest, after 25 years in the classroom, the tool gets me excited. I can't believe how many times that I say "what is that? What's that for? Why is that there?" That's what the Phenom can do.
There are a lot of tenth graders that are starting to tune out, but that changes when they see this instrument and what they can discover – who else puts pancake batter into an electron microscope and finds bug legs? I think they have very, very unique opportunities that can turn them on to a world that a lot of people have never seen.
Have there been any cases where maybe your students weren't ready for your class at a given time?
MB: I did a project that dealt with the composition of matter. It really allowed students to bring in just about any sample, and then they were going to analyze it by taking images at certain magnifications. I'll never forget the group that came in and all said they didn't bring anything.
On the front desk they saw a book of matches and they said “can we try that?” I said I don't know why not. They went through sample prep. They secured the head of a match to a stub. They placed it in the machine, and I, as much as anyone in the room, was curious what the head of the match was going to look like. It ended up being one of the feature samples, of course, in the classroom presentation, because it's amazing.
What it did for those students was firstly enable them to not be prepared and still have a great time, but it also made them kind of rock stars, because once they saw the image in front of them, they were very, very willing to pursue the science behind it, to state why diatoms are found in match heads. And then, of course, they were super proud to talk about the rest of the composition as well, but the Phenom allowed them to do that.
Can you tell me a little bit about the importance of Project Nano and some of your achievements so far?
MB: Project Nano is important to me because it's a project that we started about six years that works with bringing an electron microscope and the Project Nano toolkit into classrooms six through fourteen. The accomplishments include already having trained over 75 teachers in the Portland metro area, and just roughly, we estimate that's about an exposure of over 10,000 students to an SEM.
I describe myself as a proud papa sometimes in terms of the trained teachers that are out there, and the kids that have had a chance to see a world that's crazy cool. Also exciting, this summer we launched another project up in Washington and trained 13 sixth grade teachers in three different school districts that are going to now take Project Nano and expand it to a completely different region. We're pretty excited about that.
Image Credit: Science Center NEMO Amsterdam
What are your ultimate goals and really where you would like Project Nano to go?
MB: I'd love to see a Phenom in every high school. I think we're getting to a point where the instrument is incredibly valuable to all curriculums. It is cross-curricular as a tool. We are at a point in our own district where we start with one, we're ready for two, how long until we need a third? I think it's an exciting instrument, and we're not only excited in this region, but now in other regions of the United States as well. I'm looking forward to more and more opportunities to use the Phenom.
With Project Nano moving forward, and the Phenom being a strong part of that, where would you see the next step being going national?
MB: That’s been a pretty exciting thing for us. We presented twice, actually, down in San Diego to national groups from all over, from New York, Houston, Idaho, and then all of the west coast.
One of the things that keeps coming up is that they would love to have a program similar to Project Nano. This summer we actually had a teacher trainer from Alabama that was a part of our course. She's very, very excited about going back and talking to her university about how Project Nano could be started there.
The Pasco, Washington area looks like a super solid hub to us. We trained the sixth grade teachers this summer, and next year, we're going back to train the rest of the sixth grade teachers in that region, as well as eighth grade teachers, and the spin from there would be on to high school.
We're talking now about spiraling curriculum, skills for sixth graders, eighth graders, and tenth graders, in terms of developing full abilities for whole districts to use the Phenom. That's pretty exciting for us.
We have a group in New York that's also very interested, and then in Houston as well. Northwest Nazarene College in Idaho want to see if they can replicate what's going on with Project Nano. I'm pretty excited about that. Like I said, I feel like a proud papa sometimes in terms of watching teachers around the United States that are excited about Project Nano.
What kind of media exposure that Project Nano has generated thus far?
MB: Project Nano is founded, really, in Beaverton and Lake Oswego. We have a regional STEM center right there in Hillsboro that has used us almost as a poster child for relationships between industry, manufacturing, public schools, and the university. It's been great to be a part of that.
On a national level, we've had the opportunity to speak at Partners in Science down in San Diego. We sent Dr. Jennifer Wells to share some of our findings at the Spy Conference. In Pasco, the media was definitely full-on in terms of media specials from each of the school districts, and then also local newspapers. Pacific Northwest National Labs was pretty proud of the project, because they were part of the starters of that.
Could you give us a sense of the scale of Project Nano, and the scope of influence ithat you and your team has provided to your students?
MB: It's been a lot of fun. The first year, we trained 15 teachers. We had two SEMs and it was an amazing summer. Each summer since has been a scale up. We have at this point 75 teachers in the Portland metro area trained, and we know that that's impacted over 10,000 students. On a day-to-day basis, we have now three SEMs in operation all over the Portland metro area. We have about a 65 mile radius. It's just been a great project in terms of influencing schools, influencing teachers, and also influencing kids.
Image Credit: Science Center NEMO Amsterdam
How is the Phenom a key motivation in empowering and engaging your teachers, and energizing your students?
MB: The Phenom is what we use in our weeklong training. Teachers come during the summer and sit down with us, and we give them the opportunity to build curriculum, which is normally a torturous task that takes months. We give them a week and a Phenom, and all of a sudden they're rejuvenated, there's energy.
Even though it's summertime, they're there every day and they're having a blast. I think that that's a part of, again, the joy of this project – you see the light start to turn on. You see that they're energized to bring the curriculum back to their classroom.
I think it also gives the teacher an opportunity to be a student again, which was fascinating in curriculum development. When a teacher's amazed and excited by what they see as an image on the Phenom, next thing you know, they're very, very energized to see how they can allow their students to have that same experience. That's been a lot of fun.
What has been the impact of interacting with the Phenom on middle school students, high school students, and even their teachers, like yourself?
MB: I would definitely say that we've motivated middle school teachers to learn more science, which is sad to say, but it's true – this tool can motivate you to answer some of the questions that are generated.
I would say that for sixth graders, my favorite quote is "So I can have this or a Ferrari? I want this." It’s amazing to me that you've taken a sixth grader that normally would be into cars and turned them into a science geek who wants to use an electron microscope. That’s been a lot of fun.
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