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Middle schoolers bring home silver using titanium dioxide

Jan. 14, 2007

KALAMAZOO--Fourteen Kalamazoo and Portage middle school students and their robotics and research coaches from Western Michigan University placed second in the state for their research involving novel materials for the simultaneous detection and degradation of chlorinated ethylenes that are common groundwater pollutants.

Dr. Sherine Obare, assistant professor of chemistry, graduate student Carla Siler and undergraduate student Chris Maddalena teamed with students from Kalamazoo Public School's Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts and Woods Lake Elementary, Kalamazoo Christian Middle and Portage Central Middle schools to win second place for research and teamwork in the FIRST Michigan State FLL robotics competition held in Flint in December.

The Kalamazoo-Portage team advanced from regional matches held across the state last November encompassing more than 400 teams to be picked in the top 50 for the state tournament. Of the 50 competitors, the non-profit Kalamazoo-Portage FLL Robotics team ranked second place for its research accomplishments, competing against teams trained by faculty and scientists from the University of Michigan, DaimlerChrysler, Dow and others. Judges included professional scientists and engineers from Michigan companies and universities.

"This is a great accomplishment for our team members as it shows them that the research community values their scientific ideas and the work done," Obare says.

The theme of the FIRST--For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology--LEGO competition was nanotechnology. Besides designing, building and programming a robot, the students researched a topic related to nanotechnology and then designed a solution to tackle a real-world problem working with experts in the field.

Obare and the WMU students helped the middle school students fabricate nanoscale titanium dioxide capsules linked to vitamin B2. The designed materials were capable of storing solar energy and used that energy to carry out chemical reactions to degrade the pollutants. The process was also accompanied by changes in the fluorescence color of vitamin B2, which functioned as the detection component. Unlike many of their competitors, the Kalamazoo-Portage students had access to University labs and equipment to test their theories and prove their effectiveness.

"After a number of lectures on nanoscale science, the students were able to visit the lab and perform experiments under proper care and supervision. Their direct involvement in the research process made them understand the importance of nanoscale science in solving significant problems. This experience was important to our success in winning this award," says Obare.

The student competition is part of Obare's educational outreach as the recent recipient of a National Science Foundation's Faculty Early Career Development grant, also known as the CAREER Program. The more than $500,000 NSF grant awarded in March 2006 is targeted for understanding the chemical and physical properties of nanoscale materials and their mechanisms of multiple electron transfer. Additionally, a significant component of the research program is to develop real-world experiments that will excite elementary and secondary students about science.

"Studies have shown that most high school students perceive science as being too difficult and too boring, and it tends to be difficult to get them genuinely excited about science," says Obare. "However, at the middle school level, students are usually undecided about what they want to do when they grow up. If we can get them to appreciate the importance of science in an exciting way, there is a better chance that they will carry that into high school and possibly will consider being scientists."

A key member of WMU's Nanotechnology Research and Computation Center, Obare came to the University in 2004. She teaches inorganic and analytical chemistry courses and conducts research in the areas of inorganic and materials chemistry, nanoscale materials fabrication, chemical and biological sensors, and multiple electron transfer mechanisms.

Media contact: Deanne Molinari, (269) 387-8400, deanne.molinari@wmich.edu

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