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A soda explosion of knowledge

To explain the concept of nanotechnology to a group of high school students, Thomas Webster, professor and chair of Northeastern’s Department of Chemical Engineering, pulled out a pack of Mentos. And no, he wasn’t just making sure his breath was minty fresh.

First, Webster showed that dropping a Mento into a soda bottle causes the sugary drink to quickly overflow. Next, he divided the students into teams and tasked them with conducting the same experiment—as well as a similar one in which the mint is first broken up into tiny pieces.

“When you break up the Mento into smaller pieces and drop them in all at once, the reaction occurs for a much longer period of time,” Webster explained. The experiment, he said, helped define what nanotechnology is all about. That is, working at the nanoscale—a nanometer is one billionth of a meter—provides opportunities to build things in new ways and can lead to fascinating discoveries.

Webster’s innovative research at Northeastern focuses on the design, synthesis, and evaluation of nanomaterials for a variety of medical applications. On Friday morning, he, along with graduate student Michelle Stolzoff and postdoctoral researcher Erik Taylor, explored the science behind nanotechnology and its unlimited possibilities with the group of captivated youth. The trio showed how nanoparticles are present in a variety of consumer products such as tennis balls, nail polish, and bicycles, and how researchers are using these tiny materials to make transformative advancements in medicine. They led a handful of hands-on activities, including one that involved building bone to show how nanoparticles can heal bone fractures without using a cast or implants.

Thomas Webster, professor and chair of Northeastern's Department of Chemical Engineering, leads an interactive workshop to teach high school students about the foundations of nanotechnology. Photo by Scott Smith/Fairchild Semiconductor.

Thomas Webster, professor and chair of Northeastern’s Department of Chemical Engineering, leads an interactive workshop to teach high school students about the foundations of nanotechnology. Photo by Scott Smith/Fairchild Semiconductor.

Webster’s workshop session was part of SEMI High Tech University, a three-day tech career exploration program held in Portland, Maine, through which students from 40 high schools across New England engaged in interactive experiences across a range of areas, from the fundamentals of electronics to solar technology and semiconductor manufacturing. The program advances students’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and math—known as the STEM fields—and helps guide them on their educational pathway to career success.

Since its inception in 2001, SEMI High Tech University has been presented to more than 4,300 students and more than 900 high school teachers across the globe. It is designed by the SEMI Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports education and career awareness in the fields of high technology through scholarships and career exploration programs.

Northeastern served as the program’s higher education partner at the SEMI High Tech University in Maine. It was one of 16 total SEMI High Tech University events and programs this year in the United States, France, and Austria.

On Thursday, Jennifer Schoen, director of opportunity scholarship and outreach programs at Northeastern, discussed college readiness with about 40 students. She said taking challenging college prep courses is vital to first-year college success and highlighted several exciting nanotechnology courses at Northeastern. She also urged students to embrace campus diversity; stressed the importance of developing critical skills such as time management and organization; and advocated for getting involved in collegiate life through leadership opportunities, community service, and other campus activities.