What's a fellow to do when he has a great new product but he can't get the backing of his colleagues to get it on the market? One option: Test the product out on consumers, garner glowing reviews, and--hopefully--use those evaluations to convince potential supporters to fund his project.
This is the position that James M. Tour, professor of chemistry at Rice University, finds himself in. To date, Tour and his team have invested many hours and $250,000 in a product that they hope middle school teachers will use as a supplement to their other science teaching materials. Tour's NanoKids project is a work in progress, but it already includes two whimsical and charming animated video segments on DVD; an interactive CD with an electronic workbook and games for kids, plus guidebooks for teachers and parents; and online support. The NanoKids are an engaging crew of anthropomorphic molecules who star in 10-minute videos that each present a different scientific topic.
Tour, a respected nanoscience researcher, is also a father of four. As such, he's had some revelatory experiences about how the younger generation views and, in some cases, suffers through science.
"One day I was helping my 15-year-old daughter with her chemistry homework, and it was really painful," he says. "The homework was so boring. She looked at me, and she said, 'I can't believe that you do this for a living.' And I said, 'If had to do this for a living, I wouldn't be a chemist.' "
But kids don't start out disliking chemistry and science. "If I go into elementary schools and say, 'How many people here want to be scientists?' half the kids raise their hand," Tour explains. "Then you go into the high school and say, 'How many of you want to be scientists?' And you get one or two people raising their hand. So somehow we're losing them, and that concerns me."
Tour has tried to develop an antidote that will help kids retain some interest in science when they pass through middle school. And based on the kids' reactions, he may have succeeded.
The proof-of-concept NanoKids package was tested this fall in middle schools in Houston, where Rice University is located. Tour recently received evaluations collected by an independent firm indicating that "both students and teachers were very excited" about the material. "They said it was much more fun than 'normal' science."
In addition, the students "really go crazy over the music" that's woven into the program, Tour says. He hired a student who is getting a Ph.D. in composition to write and perform the music, which ranges from rock to pop to rap and a bit of hip-hop--the idea being "that once you put something to music, the kids don't forget it," Tour says.
One song, set to rap, is "DNA is the blueprint of life." Another song is "What kind of atom an atom is depends on the number of protons." Most graduate students have forgotten this, Tour says, "but it's fundamental. And if you say this 400 times in a song, the kids never get that wrong." The end result was "remarkable scores" on exams testing the kids' retention of these basic scientific concepts.
Other features of the production include a conga line of atoms that emerge from the periodic table to dance, and a sequence in which one of the NanoKids loses his head after he sticks it into a drop of diluted hydrochloric acid.
Tour patterned the DVD on material that appeals to kids, including Nintendo, MTV, and Nike commercials. "We couldn't come up with something interactive, but the idea was to really minimize the lecturing and let the kids explore," Tour says. "In the DVD, they are one of the NanoKids. They are looking through the eyes of a student explorer. And the NanoKids do what kids do: They turn stuff, they poke stuff, they break stuff. So they yank on DNA and see it break, and an enzyme comes and puts it back together."
Where a particular point needs to be emphasized in the DVD video, a winsome NanoDog delivers brief instruction on a series of placards. One such series says "covalent bond: sharing electrons; ionic bond: electron exchange."
The CDs that come with the project include computer games for the students. In a DNA game, the kids have to couple the base C with G, and A with T. The game spins faster and faster, and if students mix up the pairs, they lose. "Then when we test them and say, 'What two bases bind together?' they know it because they've played the DNA game," Tour says.
ONE REASON he chose the nanoscale as the venue for the project is that it can give students "an appreciation for why things have the properties that they do." When Tour and other scientists look at a tree, for instance, they see more than an assemblage of leaves and bark and roots. They understand the tree at the molecular level, where a photon hits a magnesium atom buried in the middle of a porphyrin in chlorophyll, touching off a photosynthetic cascade. "I look at that," Tour explains, "and I want to shake the person next to me and say, 'Can't you comprehend how fascinating this tree is? How this thing works?' The NanoKids live at that level, and they point this stuff out."
Tour hopes to spread that fascination around by means of his project. To get the word out, he and his team have published articles in science journals. Last year, Tour and then-graduate student Stephanie H. Chanteau--who synthesized in the lab a whole host of NanoKids and related molecules collectively termed NanoPutians--presented their work in the Journal of Organic Chemistry [68, 8750 (2003)] and the Journal of Chemical Education [80, 395 (2003)]. Other key team members include Suzanne Lamminen, who is the producer for the project, and Purdue University chemical education professor George M. Bodner, who is coprincipal investigator.
Tour has published more than 200 papers during his academic career--and only a couple have prompted his fellow scientists to drop him an e-mail or two saying they enjoyed his work. But the Journal of Organic Chemistry NanoKids paper attracted well over 100 e-mails from enthusiasts around the world. "I got one from a guy in France who loved it," says Tour. "But he said his colleagues were saying it was scandalous to have spent money on something like this."
While that was the only message with any negative content, it was indicative of the mixed reception the project was to receive from the science education establishment.
To support the project, Tour has had to use unrestricted funds from his professorship as well as small grants from Rice University, Texas A&M University, the Welch Foundation, and the nanotech firm Zyvex. In the fall of 2002, the National Science Foundation awarded the project $100,000 through its Small Grants for Exploratory Research program. But Tour has been unsuccessful in raising more funding from the agency. Armed with the evaluations from the Houston schools, however, he hopes he can convince NSF to invest more in the project.
Tour believes that part of the reason he's having trouble with fundraising is that the NanoKids leave many adults cold. When he presented the NanoKids to an audience in Taiwan, "the young people went crazy, but I saw the older people just sitting there and staring," he explains. Tour has had similar experiences elsewhere. He can sympathize, he says, since "MTV does nothing for me."
Nevertheless, the NanoKids project has already made headway with the Houston school district. "Now, the teachers who have been trained and used it are clamoring for more," he says. The Tour team wants to oblige. The first two video segments starring the NanoKids cover the periodic table and bonding and DNA. Plans for more than a dozen further modules are in the works on topics such as biology and the structure of the cell, as well as earth science. Together, the collection of videos and workbooks will touch on each of the different science concepts required by state and national educational standards.
But that objective will most likely be transparent to the project's middle school audience. "We're teaching the kids fundamental chemistry, physics, and biology, and they don't know it," Tour says. "They think it's nanotechnology, so it has this aura of being something really cool."