Nano talk for 15 years old

About two weeks ago, the Institute received an inquiry from Shevington High School near Wigan (~ 30 min drive from Liverpool). Clare Ingham, a student teacher in the School, wrote:

Recently I’ve been discussing nanoscience and nanotechnology with my year 10 students. They were very interested and enthused on the work that is being led in the north west in this area. 

Indeed, you can see on the School news blog that they really enjoyed making some model fullerenes some weeks ago [scroll down on that page to “Year 10 Chemistry”]. Clare continued:

I’d like to keep that enthusiasm high by hopefully inviting one of your research team to the school to give a short talk/Q&A with a small number of pupils in the near future on some Liverpool led developments in nanotechnology? Would this be a possibility? I’m keen to enthuse the pupils of the science they could be part of and leading in the future.

I volunteered. I have done some outreach talks before, e.g. Christmas lecture and Scibar, but I thought I’d ask Twitter for new ideas. Thank you to @Zen_of_Science@bardmital@drheaddamage@DaveFernig@PSBROOKES and @medickinson for their suggestions which I have collected in this Spotify (send me more ideas via twitter and I’ll add them there).

I visited this morning.

I was introduced as a “distinguished scientist”. I asked the children if I looked like a “distinguished scientist”. One was brave enough to say “no”. I told them a little bit my study and career path. Then, I presented to them some real “distinguished scientist” via this picture of three members of my group at a conference in France. The aim was to challenge their (?) preconceptions about scientists and make it clear that scientists look very much like them. That was not so much inspired by the Twitter response but more by my former student Rachel Gilbert’s project, the excellentThis is what a scientist looks likeas well as what I learnt through my involvement in the Institute Athena Swan committee.

We moved to “nanotechnology”. I asked them what “nano” meant. They replied:

Very small. So small you can’t see

That was a good start but of course everything is relative; 1 meter is very small compared to the Earth-Sun distance. We need to be more precise. How small is very small? From meter to millimeter, from millimeter to micrometer and finally from micrometer to nanometer. Next, I asked them for things which have dimensions in this range. Their responses, after a bit of prompting, included:

red blood cells, viruses, fullerenes and atoms

A really good base for discussion. Red blood cells a bit big for nano? Atoms, a bit small? Viruses and fullerenes: spot on! I added a few biological ingredients: proteins, DNA, membranes. I then remarked that there were two types of objects in our list. One student did get the hint and said “Biological versus non-biological” which led me to introduce how we can make things on the nanoscale via either top-down (carving a block of matter) or bottom-up (assembling parts, or better, self-assembly although I did not really get into that). Nanotechnology is in their everyday life. It is even in their pockets. I showed them this picture of how a state-of-the-art computer looked like when my parents were born. It filled a room and was infinitely less powerful than their mobile phone. I also showed them pictures of a modern transistor and of the kind of gigantic plants which are required to make these.

I asked them what they knew about light.

travel in a straight line.

speed of light is 300 ooo km/s.

white light can be separated into different colors.

I pushed a bit more on the differences between colors and a student mentioned “wavelength” but they could not really explain what this was nor how small/big were the wavelengths of visible light. Visible light is nano (blue ~ 400 nm, green ~ 520 nm, red ~ 600 nm). Nano is everywhere 😉

Since we are scientists, we do experiments. I asked for two volunteers. Before I could say one more word, I had plenty of hands up. I then specified that I required a sample from those volunteers (at that points, I think there was a hint of worry in the teacher’s eyes) but I quickly explained that I required only one hair from each (the worry dissipated). We did the hair experiment with the laser pointer as suggested by @drheaddamage (check his videos here and here). Before doing the experiment, we tried to predict the result. Given their everyday experience of light and the fact that they learnt that light travel in a straight line, the prediction is what we should see a shadow of the hair in the laser spot. The reality is quite different. We see a scattering line perpendicular to the hair with maxima and minima along the line. This is due to the fact that light is a wave. I used this experiment to show one way by which we can get information on the size of things we can’t see.

Gold nanoparticles in water

Gold nanoparticles in water. Looks like Ribena.


We then moved to nanoparticles, first gold, and then superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles.

The superparamagnetic nanoparticles are also quite fascinating as you can move the liquid around with a magnet and even defy gravity (picture below).

To conclude my presentation and link with our current research efforts, I explained the need to track STEM cells in the body and how those nanoparticles, both the superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles and the gold nanorods, can be developed as contrast agents for animal/human imaging.


Superparamagnetic nanoparticles in solvent. The liquid is held up by the magnet.


Update: Proof that I have been there; from Shevington High School news:



  1. I mentioned the Lycurgus cup. Thanks for the link, nice presentation (I have copied that part of your comment in the Storify).

    Regarding Stirling et al, we have responded to the comments and resubmitted a couple of days ago. Publication policy probably does not allow sharing the comments. I have been there before…

    Secret pre-publication peer review is absurd. One more example…


    1. Yes, unbelievable. The academic editor at PloS One has become “unresponsive”. PloS One therefore had no choice but appoint another academic editor. We do not know yet if the new academic editor will be able to take a decision on the basis of the existing referees reports and our response or if they will seek additional reports. I still have some hopes that it will take less than three years, but I am glad we posted it immediately on the arXiv…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.