Skip to main content

Nanotechnology-themed Forum Week has middle schoolers exploring big questions about the smallest particles

BY Shelby Lawson

Children are encouraged to follow their interests and think about what they want to be when they grow up. But the scope of the careers they imagine might be limited if they don’t have exposure different possibilities, especially for those less represented in certain fields. In an effort to expose young girls to different career opportunities, Campus Middle School for Girls has been running an event called “Forum Week” since the school’s establishment in 1994. During the event, the girls study a topic in depth for a week, meeting with local experts in the field and often getting hands-on experience in jobs in that field. The event is organized by Tami Adams, the current director of the middle school.

Students from Campus Middle School for Girls try on protective gear called "bunny suits" in front of the cleanrooms within the Nick Holonyak Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory.
Students from Campus Middle School for Girls try on protective gear called "bunny suits" in front of the cleanrooms within the Nick Holonyak Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory. / Shelby Lawson

“Because this is an all-girls school, it’s important to expose them to all sorts of different things,” said Adams. “We try to do different topics and say, hey, go look at all this cool stuff that you could be doing in the future! Because you never know what's going to spark, right?”

This year’s topic was nanotechnology, which is the manipulation of atomic-sized objects in order to create new technologies that can be used in electronics, medicine, and more. Faculty, postdocs, and graduate students from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign led various activities to demonstrate to the students different uses and techniques in nanotechnology. This included members from the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, the Beckman Institute, the Grainger College of Engineering, and the Nick Holonyak Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory.

In the classroom, the girls built Lego sets while wearing oven mitts to demonstrate the necessity of tools for working in the atomic scale. They used a mirror and laser to “move” a concrete wall at an atomic scale too small for the naked eye. Using beads and pipe cleaners, they learned how PCR amplifies nucleic acids in DNA. Brian Cunningham (CGD Leader/MMG), Intel Alumni Endowed Chair of the Grainger College of Engineering, and his graduate students led a number of activities in the classroom that demonstrated how scientists manipulate and measure light and florescence. One of the lessons even showed how gold nanoparticles can be used to detect molecules for cancer diagnostics.

“The students were extremely curious and asked us questions we did not expect, like ‘why are rainbows round?’, and ‘Is my shirt really red? What color is it if the lights are off?’” Cunningham remarked. “The graduate students shared their stories about how they became interested in science and engineering when they were in middle school, and I unfortunately had to tell the kids how I was not such a great student when I was in 7th grade.”

In addition to instructors coming to their classrooms, the students also spent one day visiting the University of Illinois campus. At the Beckman Institute, the girls learned about the history of the building and the original MRI machine, and got to use the Bugscope, an electron scanning microscope, to see bugs close up and in great detail. In the NHMNTL, the girls viewed the cleanrooms where transistors used in phones and laptops are produced, and got to try on the protective gear, known as bunny suits, that engineers wear when working in these rooms. They also interacted with a replica for an atomic force microscope that demonstrated how the probes create such small, precise scans.   

When asked about their campus visit during Forum Week, the students enthusiastically described their favorite activities:

“One of my favorite things was putting together a Lego police car while wearing oven mitts! It showed it’s hard to work with little things if you don’t have the right tools. Oh, and seeing the bugs up close!” said one student who wished to remain anonymous.

“My favorite part was learning about the history of the Beckman Institute, and seeing the original MRI machine,” said Evie. “We got to use these touchscreens to click true or false things about stuff in the institute, and we went around searching for the information to answer them.”

“It was cool to learn how they measure things that are super super small,” said Abby. “And getting to interact with things like that [points to the atomic force microscope replica] helped me visualize it.” When asked if she would now consider doing science like this in the future, Abby said “yes, it’s pretty cool.”

Past years have focused on a variety of other topics, ranging from art, history, science, law and more. Adams described how the first year she was director they learned about crime scene investigation, and how to identify fingerprints and bones. In a later year students talked with a lawyer at the federal courthouse and got to argue a case in front of a judge. And in another year, they designed their own podcasts and apps. Last year they visited local female-owned small businesses, and then created their own businesses to pitch to their parents at a mini-conference.

“We really want to help students develop their sense of self and recognize their place as a global citizen,” said Adams. “It's all about exposure, taking them outside their little bubble and showing them the bigger picture, how they can make an impact in the bigger world.”

Adams says she has seen the success of Forum Week firsthand during her tenure at the middle school: “I’ve been in this position long enough that I have students now that have graduated college, and it's exciting to hear what they are doing, knowing that we exposed them and helped set them on that path.”

The Campus Middle School for Girls is currently taking applications for new students, and Adams encourages all interested parents of young girls to apply.

News Archive