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Volume 2, Issue 1
October 2009

Building the Future of Technology--One Block at a Time

  • Dean M. Aslam, Ph.D.
  • Associate Professor
  • Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • College of Engineering

Nanotechnology Taught with Innovative Examples

How can we encourage more kids to consider careers in science and technology? Put toys in their hands and make it fun. Dean M. Aslam, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has been making technology fun for kids for the past ten years, while teaching them solid scientific concepts in the process.

Dr. Aslam's innovative and award-winning Kindergarten through Ph.D. (KPD) education and research program provides MSU graduate and undergraduate students the opportunity to mentor K-12 students in technology assisted science, engineering and mathematics.

The building blocks for his program are LegoTM and other commercial building toys. Using these iconic childhood toys, Aslam and his students are able to introduce nano- and micro-technologies to kids in a way that is interesting and exciting. Combining computer programming with principles of electrostatic levitation and static charges, students create robots from LegoTM pieces and then program them to do specific tasks.

Aslam's innovative application of LegoTM toys to learning modules that are used in K-12 classrooms, as well as in undergraduate and graduate university instruction, has caught the attention of researchers at such institutions as Harvard, Princeton, and MIT, who have been impressed with his method of using a common household item and simple activities to demonstrate the complexities of nanofabrication.

Aslam's learning modules are flexible enough to be used in afterschool sessions, summer robotics and nanotechnology camps, museum and homeschooling sessions, and teacher workshops as well as more formal educational settings. This adaptability has allowed tremendous opportunity for collaboration with local and rural schools and teachers, as well as with other national and international universities.

Partners and Collaborators

Currently, Aslam is working with Diane Graham at Woodcreek Elementary School in Lansing, Michigan, which has been a successful collaboration for the last four years. Graham is enthusiastic about the program, stating that, "The third grade robotics program that Dr. Aslam delivers has been and continues to be the biggest selling point of Woodcreek Magnet School for Science and Engineering." She points out that using the LegoTM robotics as a tool for learning helps the students develop academic, social, and problem-solving skills. Dr. Aslam is also working with the University of Utah, the University of Michigan (through the Wireless Integrated MicroSystems Center), and internationally with the International Islamic University in Pakistan.

Besides his collaborative work with schools and universities, in 2007 Aslam founded Nanobrick LLC, a company that utilizes his invention of Nanobricks – building blocks that have been embedded with nano components such as microcontrollers and circuits – in combination with a number of commercial building blocks including LegosTM toys and FisherblocksTM to create smart and inexpensive programmable robots. His goal for Nanobrick LLC is to market his invention for use in a variety of educational settings. He expects the products to be ready for commercialization by January 2010.

Young Imaginations and Scientific Learning

Aslam is eager to capture the creative imagination of kids and funnel it into very practical scientific applications. "Offering continuous challenge to children in technology education and observing their inquisitive mind; learning from how they work on projects" is what Aslam enjoys most about working with children.

Dr. Aslam's enthusiasm is infectious and obviously appeals to the kids he works with. Says one enthusiastic teen who attended a Summer Robotics and Nanotechnology Camp, "We get to do some pretty cool stuff!"

  • Written by Amy Byle, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of Dean M. Aslam

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