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November 30, 2015

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UNLV nanotechnology camp aims to cultivate next generation of engineers


UNLV Photo

Seventeen Clark County high school students attended a hands-on, four-day nanotechnology camp at UNLV. Nanotechnology is the study of manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Its cutting-edge applications can be seen in everything from computers to machinery to building materials to medicines to food.

Camp last week for a small group of Clark County high school students didn’t include swimming, hiking or any of the usual recreation activities associated with summer.

But then, these students weren’t attending a traditional summer camp.

Instead, they were participating in a nanotechnology camp at UNLV. Nanotechnology is the study of manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Its cutting-edge applications can be seen in everything from computers to machinery, building materials to medicines and food.

The camp attracted 17 students, who attended lectures on various topics related to nanotechnology. Hui Zhao, a UNLV assistant professor of mechanical engineering, said enrollment in the camp was kept relatively low by design to allow the students to take a more hands-on approach. Once the opening day of lectures was finished, camp sessions were devoted to applying the lecture material in a laboratory setting.

Among other projects, campers made nano solar cells that generated electricity, Zhoa said.

UNLV sponsored the camp as part of a grant it received to broaden interests of high school students so that they are more likely to pursue the study of science and engineering in college.

It’s what lured Taylor Jorgensen, a sophomore at Clark High School, to the camp.

“I’ve never been exposed to the different types of engineering, so I’m not sure if I want to pursue a career in this field, which is what I’m hoping this camp will help me figure out,” he said.

Added Johana Iglesias, a sophomore at Clark High school: “I’ve always liked science and math, and I know that engineering is a good balance between the two, but I want to know more and learn about whether or not I want a career in engineering, and I think this camp will really help me do that.”

The U.S. Department of Education grant that helped bring the camp to UNLV also funded a workshop this spring for a group of Clark County high school teachers to broaden their knowledge of nanotechnology.

“We wanted to teach how high school teachers can integrate nanotechnology into their classrooms,” said Shaoan Zhang, an associate professor of teacher education with UNLV’s department of teaching and learning.

The theory is that high school teachers who know about nanotechnology can get their students excited about it, and those students will, in turn, consider nanotechnology or another science- or math-based major as their field of study in college.

As it is, few U.S. students are pursuing degrees in these fields. That means, Zhao said, nanotechnology-related companies are forced to turn to other countries for workers.

Beth Isaacs, a biology teacher at Clark High School, attended the summer session after missing the April workshop. After the first day of the camp, Isaacs said she realized the opportunities within nanotechnology and other engineering fields.

“I truly believe that if these students know calculus and are able to pursue degrees in these science fields, then they will basically be guaranteed a job,” Isaacs said.

Expanding the quality and quantity of students in nanotechnology studies at UNLV will ultimately boost the Southern Nevada economy, Zhao said.

When the Great Recession hit the state a few years ago and revenues from gaming started to level, the state tried to lure technology companies to Nevada. However, Zhao said, the companies were reluctant to come because there were not enough qualified people to work for them.

For Marcos Banchik, a sophomore at Clark High School, attending the camp had little to do with luring him to the field, though. He’s already sold on it.

“I’ve always wanted to be an engineer, and I think that pursuing a career in engineering will help me make a contribution to society,” he said.

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