What exactly is the Experimentarium?
The Experimentarium is a kind of extracurricular place of learning here at our Würzburg base at the new North Campus of Würzburg University. You can think of it as a laboratory. But above all it’s an experiment room equipped with microscopes, including the Leica DCM 3D confocal microscope, and other research instruments such as soldering irons, screws, pipettes and experiment kits. Groups can do their own research and conduct experiments here, for instance in our "Technik-Tandem", where grandparents can drop in with their grandchildren to explore natural sciences and technology together.
How is the Leica DCM 3D used in the Experimentarium?
I mainly use the Leica DCM 3D in the "Technik-Tandem". Thematically, the idea is to compare research in the old days with that of today, i.e. old and new technologies. So the participants examine a variety of samples with a simple optical microscope first and then with a modern confocal microscope. This shows them the progress that has been made in microscopy.
What other microscopes do you use?
Apart from the Leica DCM 3D we work in the Experimentarium with an atomic force microscope, a scanning tunneling microscope, a particle analyzer and a fine dust measuring instrument.
What is a typical lesson like?
First of all, our postgraduate team explains what nanotechnology actually is and where it is used in everyday life. For example, every student has a smartphone or a CD player, but hardly any of them associates it with nanotechnology. This is followed by the hands-on part consisting of two units: half the students work with confocal microscopy, scanning tunneling microscopy or atomic force microscopy, depending on the instruments we have on board. The other half does little experiments in individual learning stations. Then the groups change over.
The NanoShuttle is an equally important part of the young talent promotion program. It’s a kind of "experiment kit on wheels". What exactly is the NanoShuttle and how is it used?
The NanoShuttle is a minivan equipped with various high-tech microscopes and nano experiment material such as a scanning tunnel microscope and a particle analyzer. We take the van to schools all over Bavaria and get the kids to do experiments in different future technologies, for instance nanotechnology. The aim of the school visits is to inform the students about future technologies and get them interested. In this way we provide them with insights into current research right on their doorstep.
Fig. 5: The IJF team visits schools all over Bavaria with the NanoShuttle, firing students‘ enthusiasm for natural sciences and future technologies.
How do you capture the youngsters‘ enthusiasm for nanotechnology?
Our approach is to let them discover the technologies by using them. In our experiment stations in particular, students often have an "Aha experience" when they remember something from their chemistry or physics lessons. We live in a technology-driven world and we tend to use things without really thinking about how they work. We are surrounded by nanotechnology without realizing it. Nobody knows how every single component in a smartphone really works. And nanotechnology is implemented in countless products designed for a huge spectrum of applications. Take medical technology, communications or surface technology and even cosmetics, for example – nanotechnology plays a role in all these areas. Finding this out and going into the subject in more detail is beyond the scope of the ordinary school curriculum.
You mentioned that microscopy is an important part of your school visits. How large does microscopy feature in general in your lessons? What do the students learn about it?
Microscopy is fundamentally indispensable in natural and material sciences, which continually involve examining or researching structures that are invisible to the naked eye. A hair, for instance, is roughly 0.05 millimeters thick. We can still easily it. To see nanostructures, I need a powerful microscope. So nanotechnology and microscopy go hand in hand: first we explain to the students what nano is and how nano structures can be visualized. Then we show them how it actually works.
What is your vision of what the Initiative for Young Researchers can teach young people?
We want young people to go through life with their eyes open. We want them to be able to see what’s behind the technology that surrounds us every day. Our school visits can motivate them to go into these subjects in more depth.
The non-profit association Initiative junge Forscherinnen und Forscher e.V. is sponsored by the European Social Fund for Bavaria (ESF). More information on the NanoShuttle and the Experimentarium can be found on the website of the Initiative at www.initiative-junge-forscher.de/start.html.