"Carbon playground" converts atoms into fun

Oct. 30, 2012

by David Tenenbaum

Photo: Carbon playground

First, second, and third grade students from the Children’s House Montessori School in Dundee, Ill. try out the nanotube structure in the Carbon Playground at the Discovery Center Museum in Rockford, Ill.

Photo: Libby Dowdall

A new playground that opened Oct. 25 at the Discovery Center Museum in Rockford, Ill. is the first in the world built around unique structures formed by the element carbon.

Carbon has been called the element of life because it combines with other elements to make up living organisms, but all by itself it also forms structures that have phenomenal strength, based on the power of the chemical bonds between carbon atoms. 

Conceived at UW–Madison, the playground is designed for elementary-schoolers, and features climbing structures based on the soccer-ball-like buckyball molecule, the pipe-shaped carbon nanotube, and graphene, a molecule that looks like chicken wire and is just one atom thick.

"We chose carbon because it exhibits a lot of different structures, and you could consider making them into playground equipment," says John Moore, professor of chemistry. "Other elements do not produce such a variety of structures, and many of them would not be suitable for playground equipment."

“They are not going to learn that much from climbing, but we hope the playground equipment is a hook that gets them interested in nanoscience.”

John Moore

But the playground is not just about climbing and clambering, Moore says. "These structures have been critical areas for chemical research for over 20 years, so they make for a good scientific story, not just a great playground."

The structures were the brainchild of Jim Maynard, lecture demonstrator in the chemistry department. Andrew Greenberg, co-director of outreach for the UW–Madison Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC), suggested using the models for climbing. The Institute for Chemical Education, which Moore heads, received a grant for the project from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. Support was also provided by the National Science Foundation through the NSEC.

Moore says the Discovery Center was the ideal location. "We were already paired with them through the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center, and it's rated as one of the top 12 children's museums in the country. Plus it has a playground, and associate director Michael Rathbun really liked the idea and was willing to modify the playground to feature three sizable structures."

The playground offers a good time, but the ultimate function is as bait for learning about carbon, chemical bonds and molecular structure, Moore adds. Angela Jones, a postdoctoral researcher in the chemistry department, created signs that explain the structures on which the playground pieces are based, built a website that provides much more information about carbon and its applications, and developed hands-on activities related to the carbon structures. Curriculum materials for children before or after a school visit are being produced by Martha Rathbun, an Illinois teacher who participated in the NSF-sponsored summer Research Experience for Teachers program at the NSEC.

“There is no question that this is a fruitful frontier for science and engineering. It’s the shape of tomorrow.”

John Moore

On the web, students can track Carl Carbon's Career Quest through the land of Elementasia. Carl, a fictional character who is a carbon atom, learns about various applications of carbon-based substances in modern society. Children learn about atoms in general and carbon compounds more specifically. They can also play web games related to carbon structures, view videos about carbon structures, and find hands-on activities.

Moore explains that nanoscale science and engineering are the study of chemical structure and reactions at the most basic level; the fields have applications ranging from energy conversion and storage to biology. The name derives from the nanometer (billionth of a meter), which is used to measure atomic structures like those in the buckyball, nanotube and graphene. One inch measures slightly more than 25 million nanometers.

At the Rockford museum, the buckyball, nanotube and graphene had to be blown up 2.7 billion times for conversion into steel playground equipment coated with plastic.

Since the 60-carbon buckyball molecule was discovered in 1985, nanoscale carbon structures have fascinated scientists and engineers. Although their industrial uses in the main remain to be perfected, scientists envision a broad range of applications in research, energy, pharmaceuticals and electronics.

One goal of the nanoscale center at UW–Madison, and the playground in Rockford, is to ensure that more young people take part in a fascinating new field, Moore says. "They are not going to learn that much from climbing, but we hope the playground equipment is a hook that gets them interested in nanoscience. If they become fascinated and learn more from the website, they may want to continue in math and science courses, come to the university and study matter at this most basic level. There is no question that this is a fruitful frontier for science and engineering. It's the shape of tomorrow."