To explain the con­cept of nan­otech­nology to a group of high school stu­dents, Thomas Web­ster, pro­fessor and chair of Northeastern’s Depart­ment of Chem­ical Engi­neering, pulled out a pack of Mentos. And no, he wasn’t just making sure his breath was minty fresh.

First, Web­ster showed that drop­ping a Mento into a soda bottle causes the sugary drink to quickly over­flow. Next, he divided the stu­dents into teams and tasked them with con­ducting the same experiment—as well as a sim­ilar one in which the mint is first broken up into tiny pieces.

When you break up the Mento into smaller pieces and drop them in all at once, the reac­tion occurs for a much longer period of time,” Web­ster explained. The exper­i­ment, he said, helped define what nan­otech­nology is all about. That is, working at the nanoscale—a nanometer is one bil­lionth of a meter—provides oppor­tu­ni­ties to build things in new ways and can lead to fas­ci­nating discoveries.

Webster’s inno­v­a­tive research at North­eastern focuses on the design, syn­thesis, and eval­u­a­tion of nano­ma­te­rials for a variety of med­ical appli­ca­tions. On Friday morning, he, along with grad­uate stu­dent Michelle Stol­zoff and post­doc­toral researcher Erik Taylor, explored the sci­ence behind nan­otech­nology and its unlim­ited pos­si­bil­i­ties with the group of cap­ti­vated youth. The trio showed how nanopar­ti­cles are present in a variety of con­sumer prod­ucts such as tennis balls, nail polish, and bicy­cles, and how researchers are using these tiny mate­rials to make trans­for­ma­tive advance­ments in med­i­cine. They led a handful of hands-​​on activ­i­ties, including one that involved building bone to show how nanopar­ti­cles can heal bone frac­tures without using a cast or implants.

Thomas Webster, professor and chair of Northeastern's Department of Chemical Engineering, leads an interactive workshop to teach high school students about the foundations of nanotechnology. Photo by Scott Smith/Fairchild Semiconductor.

Thomas Web­ster, pro­fessor and chair of Northeastern’s Depart­ment of Chem­ical Engi­neering, leads an inter­ac­tive work­shop to teach high school stu­dents about the foun­da­tions of nan­otech­nology. Photo by Scott Smith/​Fairchild Semi­con­ductor.

Webster’s work­shop ses­sion was part of SEMI High Tech Uni­ver­sity, a three-​​day tech career explo­ration pro­gram held in Port­land, Maine, through which stu­dents from 40 high schools across New Eng­land engaged in inter­ac­tive expe­ri­ences across a range of areas, from the fun­da­men­tals of elec­tronics to solar tech­nology and semi­con­ductor man­u­fac­turing. The pro­gram advances stu­dents’ interest in sci­ence, tech­nology, engi­neering, and math—known as the STEM fields—and helps guide them on their edu­ca­tional pathway to career success.

Since its incep­tion in 2001, SEMI High Tech Uni­ver­sity has been pre­sented to more than 4,300 stu­dents and more than 900 high school teachers across the globe. It is designed by the SEMI Foun­da­tion, a non­profit orga­ni­za­tion that sup­ports edu­ca­tion and career aware­ness in the fields of high tech­nology through schol­ar­ships and career explo­ration programs.

North­eastern served as the program’s higher edu­ca­tion partner at the SEMI High Tech Uni­ver­sity in Maine. It was one of 16 total SEMI High Tech Uni­ver­sity events and pro­grams this year in the United States, France, and Austria.

On Thursday, Jen­nifer Schoen, director of oppor­tu­nity schol­ar­ship and out­reach pro­grams at North­eastern, dis­cussed col­lege readi­ness with about 40 stu­dents. She said taking chal­lenging col­lege prep courses is vital to first-​​year col­lege suc­cess and high­lighted sev­eral exciting nan­otech­nology courses at North­eastern. She also urged stu­dents to embrace campus diver­sity; stressed the impor­tance of devel­oping crit­ical skills such as time man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tion; and advo­cated for get­ting involved in col­le­giate life through lead­er­ship oppor­tu­ni­ties, com­mu­nity ser­vice, and other campus activities.