First-Year Engineering Students' Communication of Nanotechnology Size & Scale in a Design Challenge



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While nanotechnology is a highly engaging topic for students, it entails concepts that are difficult to understand and need to be carefully considered when incorporating nanotechnology into classroom instruction. The notion of size and scale (also referred to as a "big idea" in learning nanoscale engineering & science) is a fundamental concept for understanding nanotechnology, but is also a difficult concept for students to grasp. This study was guided by the following research question: How do student teams communicate their ideas concerning size and scale concepts through their nanotechnology-based design projects? This study was conducted within a first-year engineering course at Purdue University. Students were required to create a graphical-user interface to communicate fundamental concepts of nanotechnology, including size and scale, to their peers. The final submissions of 30 teams were analyzed in this study through grounded theory. It was found that 27 teams presented content about scale and 12 teams presented content about size. Methods to scaffold students' learning of nanotechnology size and scale concepts are discussed.


Kelsey Joy Rodgers, Purdue University, West Lafayette
Kelsey Rodgers is currently pursuing her PhD in engineering education at Purdue University. She is a member of the Network for Computational Nanotechnology (NCN) education research team. She con- ducts research within the First-Year Engineering Program to help understand what and how students are learning about nanotechnology. Her current projects involve investigating students' understanding of size and scale concepts, the cross-disciplinary nature of nanotechnology, and the progression of students' sim- ulation abilities in a nanotechnology context.

Miss Yi Kong, Purdue University, West Lafayette
Yi Kong is a doctoral student in biology education and a graduate research assistant for the Network for Computational Nanotechnology (NCN) education research team at Purdue University. She received her M.S. in agriculture in Fishery Resources from Huazhong Agricultural University and B.S. in Biological Science from Shaanxi Normal University in China. Her research includes evaluating first-year engineering students' communication of nanoscience concepts through project-based-learning activities.

Prof. Heidi A. Diefes-Dux, Purdue University, West Lafayette
Heidi A. Diefes-Dux is a Professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. She received her B.S. and M.S. in Food Science from Cornell University and her Ph.D. in Food Process Engineering from the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue University. She is a member of Purdue's Teaching Academy. Since 1999, she has been a faculty member within the First- Year Engineering Program, teaching and guiding the design of one of the required first-year engineering courses that engages students in open-ended problem solving and design. Her research focuses on the development, implementation, and assessment of model-eliciting activities with authentic engineering contexts. She is currently the Director of Teacher Professional Development for the Institute for P-12 Engineering Research and Learning (INSPIRE) and a member of the educational team for the Network for Computational Nanotechnology (NCN).

Prof. Krishna Madhavan, Purdue University, West Lafayette
Krishna Madhavan is an Assistant Professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue Univer- sity. He is also the Education Director and co-PI of the NSF-funded Network for Computational Nan- otechnology ( He specializes in the development and deployment of large-scale data and visualization based platforms for enabling personalized learning. His work also focuses on understanding the impact and diffusion of learning innovations. Dr. Madhavan was the Chair of the IEEE/ACM Super- computing Education Program 2006 and was the curriculum director for the Supercomputing Education Program 2005. In January 2008, he was awarded the NSF CAREER award for work on transforming en- gineering education through learner-centric, adaptive cyber-tools and cyber-environments. He was one of 49 faculty members selected as the nation's top engineering educators and researchers by the US National Academy of Engineering to the Frontiers in Engineering Education symposium.


Rodgers, K. J., Kong, Y., Diefes-Dux, H.A., & Madhavan, K. (2014). First-year engineering students' communication of nanotechnology size and scale in a design challenge. Proceedings of the 121st ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition. Indianapolis, IN.

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Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  • Kelsey Joy Rodgers, Yi Kong, Heidi A Diefes-Dux, Krishna Madhavan (2014), "First-Year Engineering Students' Communication of Nanotechnology Size & Scale in a Design Challenge,"

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