Students create “nanoflowers” using aluminum foil

The College in High School Program started in 2007 as a teacher-led initiative to provide an extended science education to students in high schools who might not have access to advanced placement classes or to students who might prefer a more active learning style in advanced science classes.

“If you don’t expose students to science, then they’re not going to be motivated to study it,” said Dr. Matt Zeller, who is involved in some of the projects that bring high school students to YSU.

So how do you interest students in sciences if they’re never exposed to them?

“You have to come up with something that is interesting right from the start, something that looks interesting,” Dr. Zeller said.

Dr. Zeller has been working with several YSU students and with Drs. Allen Hunter and Tim Wagner to create experiments for the College in High School Program that give the students a chance to do actual science research rather than just mix chemicals and look for color changes. In the most recent project, the students were able to grow microscopically small “flowers,” too tiny to see with the naked eye.

Dr. Zeller said that this experiment was adapted from an experiment Harvard University researchers were investigating using gold plated slides.

“The original paper described how to induce the growth of micrometer sized carbonate crystallites with intricate flower like shapes. With the right mix of salt solutions, and by adjusting the experimental conditions (temperature, pH, size of the holes to let air diffuse in, etc.) the size and shape of the “flowers” can be influenced, and one can get all kinds of different shapes,” Dr. Zeller said. “The shapes are too small to see well even with an optical microscope, so we use one of our scanning electron microscopes for the visualization.”

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Dr. Zeller noted that the original parameters of the Harvard experiment required equipment and materials that were too expensive for a high school setting. After several months working at YSU, an intern from Hubbard High School worked out the kinks in the experiment to make it less costly and more appropriate for modest budgets and beginning researchers. For example, they decided that it would be best to conduct the experiment with aluminum foil instead of gold-plated slides.

Dr. Hunter said a big appeal of the nanoflowers experiment was that it was visually stimulating.

“The products look like art glass. It’s easy for some geeky person like a chemistry professor to appeal to other geeky people, but because these are beautiful things that anybody can appreciate just as art, let alone as science, people get interested without them having to have years of background,” Dr. Hunter said. “You basically take aluminum foil and add a couple chemicals to a beaker of water and these flowers grow on it. They’re amazingly pretty. They look like seashells or something.”

Students grow the nanoflowers at their high schools and then bring their flower gardens on the aluminum foil to YSU’s Electron Microscopy Laboratory. There, Dr. Dingqiang Li helps them to visualize their flowers on YSU’s scanning electron microscope.

Mary Janek, a Campbell high school teacher whose students had been among four high school classes that tried out the nanoflowers project last year, said that this program has helped her students immensely.

“This is really a great experience for our HS students,” Ms. Janek said. “They are getting to work with advanced instrumentation and have access to those specialists who can relate to the high school students and yet help to push them into exploring chemistry concepts that the high school budget could not begin to afford.”