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Sometimes the smallest of things lead to the biggest ideas. Case in point: Nano 2020, a University of Arizona-led initiative to develop curriculum and technology focused on educating students in the rapidly expanding field of nanotechnology.
The five-year, multi-university project recently met its goal of creating globally relevant and implementable curricula and instructional technologies, to include a virtual reality classroom, that enhance the capacity of educators to teach students about innovative nanotechnology applications in agriculture and the life sciences.
Visualizing What is Too Small to be Seen
Nanotechnology involves particles and devices developed and used at the scale of 100 nanometers or less – to put that in perspective, the average diameter of a human hair is 80,000 nanometers. The extremely small scale can make comprehension challenging when it comes to learning about things that cannot be seen with the naked eye.
That's where the Nano 2020 virtual reality classroom comes in. In a custom-developed VR classroom complete with a laboratory, nanoscale objects come to life for students thanks to the power of science data visualization.
Within the VR environment, students can interact with objects of nanoscale proportions – pick them up, turn them around and examine every nuance of things that would otherwise be too small to see. Students can also interact with their instructor or their peers. The Nano 2020 classroom allows for multi-player functionality, giving educators and students the opportunity to connect in a VR laboratory in real time, no matter where they are in the world.
"The virtual reality technology brings to life this complex content in a way that is oddly simple," said Matt Mars, associate professor of agricultural leadership and innovation education in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-director of the Nano 2020 grant. "Imagine if you can take a student and they see a nanometer from a distance, and then they're able to approach it and see how small it is by actually being in it. It's mind-blowing, but in a way that students will be like, 'Oh wow, that is really cool!'"
"The thing that I was the most fascinated with from the beginning was playing with a sense of scale," said Black, a lifelong technologist and mentor-in-residence at the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship. "What really intrigued me about virtual reality is that it is a tool where scale is elastic – you can dial it up and dial it down. Obviously, with nanotechnology, you're dealing with very, very small things that nobody has seen yet, so it seemed like a perfect use of virtual reality."
Black and Tech Core students including Robert Johnson, Hazza Alkaabi, Matthew Romero, Devon Oberdan, Brandon Erickson and Tim Lukau turned science data into an object, the object into an image, and the image into a 3D rendering that is functional in the VR environment they built.
"I think that being able to interact with objects of nanoscale data in this environment will result in a lot of light bulbs going off in the students' minds. I think they'll get it," Black said. "To be able to experience something that is abstract – like, what does a carbon atom look like – well, if you can actually look at it, that's suddenly a whole lot of context."
The VR classroom complements the Nano 2020 curriculum, which globally expands the opportunities for nanotechnology education within the fields of agriculture and the life sciences.
Teaching the Workforce of the Future
"There have been great advances to the use of nanotechnology in the health sciences, but many more opportunities for innovation in this area still exist in the agriculture fields. The idea is to be able to advance these opportunities for innovation by providing some educational tools," said Randy Burd, who was a nutritional sciences professor at the University of Arizona when he started the Nano 2020 project with funding from a National Institute of Food and Agriculture Higher Education Challenge grant through the United States Department of Agriculture. "It not only will give students the basics of the understanding of the applications, but will give them the innovative thought processes to think of new creations. That's the real key."