High Schools Meet High Tech


Anyone who has taken high school science classes will be familiar with the optical microscope. It’s a scientific rite of passage to be able to name all the components and explain how the objective and the eyepiece magnify an image. And rightly so; optical microscopes are ubiquitous and are incredibly useful instruments for a wide variety of applications. For decades these microscopes have been taught in school, and have given us an up-close look at the tiny things that make up our world.

Every year, though, technology is aggressively miniaturized, and science delves deeper and deeper into the smallest fundamental building blocks of the world. Your high school optical microscope can only zoom in so far before you reach the diffraction limit and need to switch to a more powerful magnifying instrument. However, these powerful instruments are too complex and far too expensive for teenagers to learn in school. In order to see the things that optical microscopes cannot, you often need half a million dollars and a PhD.

ICSPI is breaking this barrier by introducing the first Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) that is accessible to anyone. AFMs are among the highest resolution microscopes available today and are regularly considered to be essential tools in the latest scientific discoveries. What if these powerful instruments were just as affordable and simple to use as optical microscopes? Would high school students be able to understand and use the latest in nanotechnology instrumentation? We took some nGauge AFMs to a local high school to find out.

We were invited to teach a grade 12 physics class and give a workshop on our AFMs. After a brief 10 minute introductory talk about how an AFM works, the class divided up into small groups. Each group operated an AFM with a different sample. With minimal guidance the students were able to load the samples and acquire high resolution images of diffraction gratings, aluminum foil, butterfly wings, and DVDs. By the end of the one hour class they had learned to operate state-of-the-art research equipment to investigate nanoscale samples, an experience that has historically been reserved for university grad students.

The simple operation and intuitive user interface of the nGauge AFM makes the process of acquiring nanoscale images easy. Unlike conventional AFMs, there are no lasers to align, no miniscule cantilevers to exchange, no cumbersome vibration isolation or high voltage drive/sense electronics, and no special knowhow required. If you can learn to use an optical microscope, you can learn to use the nGauge AFM.

In recent years there has been a bigger push to get young people interested in STEM fields as the fastest growing career paths are almost all STEM-related. What better way is there to generate interest than by using advanced instruments to explore the latest in science and technology? Students could be learning firsthand how DVDs work, how proteins fold, or how the transistors that make up a processor’s memory are laid out, instead of simply reading about it. For the first time ever this hands-on approach is possible because of the powerful and affordable nGauge AFM.

As a further test of the instrument’s ease of use, we had a 10 year old budding scientist try it out. After only a few minutes of explanation she was able to load a sample and get an image.

The nGauge AFM was designed to make nanoscale metrology simpler and more affordable, not only for top of the line researchers, but for young people whose brains are thirsty for knowledge about the world around them. It is important to lay down a foundation of all the new technological advances in our current world; things that surpass what can be seen by a regular optical microscope. If technological advances do not rest, neither should the advancements in the tools used to educate.