Saturday, March 31, 2007

Nanoscience taught to the visually impaired

Nanoscale objects are much too small for us to see them. So, according to educators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, nanotechnology is a research field where blind students and sighted ones are equal. After all, "we're all blind at the nanoscale," says a member of the educational team. They've built 3-D models of nano-surfaces which can be explored with the hands.

These plaster models, which are several inches long — even if the structures they represent are millions times smaller — replicate an earlier version of 'NanoBucky,' a nanoscale version of the UW-Madison mascot, Bucky Badger. The goal of this project is to encourage blind and visually impaired students to pursue science, technology and engineering.

These 3-D models are the 'nanobabies' of Andrew Greenberg, education and outreach coordinator for the UW-Madison
Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC) and Mohammed Farhoud, a senior biochemistry student working with the Center for Biology Education (CBE).

On the left is a photo of a "3-D model of "NanoBucky,' a nanoscale version of the University of Wisconsin-Madison mascot Bucky Badger made entirely from tiny carbon nanofiber 'hairs.' To create the 3-D model, Mohammed Farhoud, a UW-Madison senior in biochemistry, converted the 2-D information contained in a scanning electron microscopy image of the original NanoBucky into 3-D, and then used these data to 'print' the model in plaster with an engineering tool known as a rapid prototyping printer."

Here are two links to
a larger version of this photo and to other related pictures. And if you want to learn more about the original NanoBucky, you can read a previous article from UW-Madison News, "The World's Tiniest Badger?" (August 29, 2005) and look at some photos.

Now, how the new NanoBucky was built?

Starting with a 2-D, grey-scale picture of the nano-mascot taken with scanning electron microscopy (SEM), Farhoud first reversed the image, making the blacks appear white and vice versa. Next, he used the various shades of grey in the image to confer heights on the carbon nanofibers: the blackest black was assigned a maximum height, white got a value of zero, and the computing program MATLAB calculated all the values in between. Farhoud then sent these newly acquired 3-D data into the rapid prototyper, which lays down plaster layer-by-layer to "print" 3-D models.

The goal of this program is to open science and technology careers to all students. "Greenberg hopes the models will encourage more blind and visually impaired students to pursue science, technology and engineering. Because current learning and research tools don't allow them to experience science on their own, many blind students don't consider science an attractive career choice."

This research work has been presented on Tuesday at the
233rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (March 25-29, 2007, Chicago, IL) in one of the sessions focused on Teaching Chemistry to the Visually Impaired. The title of the presentation was "Teaching nanoscience to the blind and visually impaired." Here is a link to the abstract.


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