We believe that a low cost AFM could be a powerful educational tool. A modular design that can be built in a variety of ways to make measurements of the nanoscale world encourages creativity and participation in ‘hands-on’ science and engineering.
To get a feel for how school students would interact with a home-built AFM, and what they would be excited to explore with it, we carried out a series of workshops (in which Edwin and a team of students built his AFM kit from scratch and took images with it and also worked on a scaled-up, moving lego AFM model) as well as working with high school students on the build.
We also conducted interviews, which we translated and typed, with Tsinghua high school students at the summer school as well as participating PhD student mentors. We found out that the group of students who worked with Edwin might understand more about how AFM works than the students that did not attend the workshops. This could be because the students that got to build an AFM from the beginning were introduced to how an AFM really works and the key components that it comprises. In contrast, the students that worked on the build instead of attending the demonstration in general showed a less comprehensive grounding in their understanding AFM and its applications.
This finding suggested that AFM is perhaps better understood when students can be involved in assembling a kit from the beginning, step-by-step, but also that actually using the microscope is perhaps the most powerful tool to make students think creatively about its potential applications. This shows the power that hands-on learning can have, breaking down a complex technique such as AFM in to something that students can not only understand but also begin to think of interesting uses or modifications.
When asked to explore what they thought an AFM kit could be used for, a variety of applications were volunteered by the high school students. Interestingly, we found a general trend to be that the boys had more creative ideas, including but not limited to moving/manipulating atoms and building a nano-robot, whilst the girls had more realistic ideas (including a use as a quality control technique in the manufacturing industry). We reasoned that all ideas, whether outlandish or realistic, show creativity and engagement. Moreover, in science often the strange ideas are the best ones!
It was also interesting to investigate what the UK/US-based mentors had discovered in their time working with high school students. After chatting with several mentors, it was agreed that the high school students are very smart, interested and confident. The depth of their knowledge base in areas such as electronics, manufacturing and computing was also very evident (most of them seemed to know complicated things that the mentors confessed to have learnt at university!).
More to come on Education soon!