Nano Days!

Nano Days

It’s time for “Nano Day” at the Children’s Museum! “Nano.” You’ve heard it before, but what does it even mean? Nano means “one billionth.” We are talking about how things work that are 1 billion times smaller than a meter –smaller-than-microscopic scale. On this scale, we must think differently and work differently. We’re sharing some experiments and demonstrations to show what this means.

The Children’s Museum of Virginia has partnered with Norfolk State University (NSU) staff and students to bring their expertise in Materials Science, Biology, Chemistry and more to make S.T.E.M. activities fun for our visitors.

Norfolk State University

Many of the activities come from the National Informal STEM Education Network (NISE Net) and help explain nanotechnology. We’re not only talking about futuristic topics, but how we are already impacted by nanotechnology. We see nano particles in sunscreen and other medications, how we model technology after animal adaptations, how solids and liquids interact differently, and how using the right tools and computers change what we know.

The following activities are adapted from those shared from NISE Net. To discover more of their at-home experiments and demonstrations, click here:



“Exploring Tools 1”

When working and learning at the nano- level, we need the right tools. Here, we’re using blocks to build a structure and usually our hands and fingers are just the right size to use as tools. This activity adds a hindrance to show what it’s like on the nano level without the right tools or equipment.

You will need: 

  • Blocks (like LEGO or Duplos but other blocks will work as well)
  • A flat open space to build
  • Oven mitts, at least one for each participant
  • A timer
  • Optional: a predetermined structure or shape to build


What you’ll do:

  1. Decide on the structure to build. Drawing a simple picture as a blueprint may be helpful (an added challenge is to be specific about the size and color of the blocks.) If you have LEGO or Duplo, try this from NISE Net. Block House
  2. Participants are timed building the structure using either one or both bare hands.
  3. Dismantle the structure and try again wearing the oven mitts.Blocks


What happened?
Wearing the oven mitts to build should have seemed more difficult and taken longer than building with bare hands. This is how working at the nano-level feels when the tools are too big. We may not be able to see the types of things being researched and created so we need the right tools to work and build with things so small.


“Exploring Tools 2”

How do we know what things on the nanoscale look like? If they are so small that a regular microscope can’t help us to view them, how can we see them? Another demonstration to show how scientists use many tools is to use our senses in a different way.

You’ll need:

  • Two people (one should be an adult)
  • An object that can be held/touched safely
  • Paper and a sharpened pencil
  • Optional: a box in which to place the object so that it is only seen by the first person


What you’ll do:

  1. Set up in a place where the object can be drawn on the paper, like a desk or a table.
  2. Have an adult retrieve an object that the second person won’t see.
  3. With one hand, the second person only touches the object (no peeking!) and uses the other hand to draw what is felt.
  4. When the drawing is finished, look at the object. How well does the drawing match what is seen? Are there any parts missing from the drawing?Tools 2

What happened?
While one hand was touching the object and the other hand was drawing, you modeled a “scanning probe microscope” or SPM. This type of microscope moves a super pointy and sharp tip (your hand) to move across the nano object and the computer program translates the information into a picture (your drawing.) There are some details that may be missing from the imaging but this tool was a breakthrough for nanotechnology scientists. It allows them to create images of individual atoms, which allows scientists to study and manipulate the atoms.

Check out this video from the University of Wisconsin for further information on this type of microscope.

“Exploring Materials”

Homemade Goop

The structure of a material on the nano-scale affects how the material behaves on the macroscale. Changes to the structure might not be seen because it’s too small but the corresponding macroscale properties can be observed. This activity involves making a slightly-messy, but fun ooze.

This ooze is a non-Newtonian fluid which firms up like a solid when you apply a lot of pressure, but when little or no pressure is applied, it flows like a liquid. Make some and test it out for yourself!

Materials Needed: cornstarch, water, container to mix (zipper bag, bowl, or cup), spoon

ooze materials


If using a bag:

1) Mix 2 parts cornstarch to 1 part water in a zipper bag.

2) Tightly seal the bag allowing some air to remain.

3) Tilt the mixture from side to side to combine.


If using a Bowl/Cup:

1) Mix 2 parts cornstarch to 1 part water in a bowl or cup.

2) Gently stir with a spoon or mix with your hands until combined.

bowl mixture


What can you do with ooze?
Apply different amounts of pressure to ooze using a spoon or your finger and see how it reacts.



Conduct an experiment to see if items will float or sink in the ooze. Lay out a variety of small items (such as a paperclip, a penny, dice, a marble, a toothpick, a button, a cotton ball, etc.). Sort the items into two categories: predict will sink, predict will float. Test out your predictions by carefully dropping each item into the ooze.