Believe it or not, one of the coolest jobs right now is using building blocks. Although it may sound like what a child is doing in elementary school, this activity hardly has the connotation of playing with LEGOs. Instead, building blocks have captured interest on a much smaller level: the nanometer, or the measure of one billionth of a meter. To put a billionth of a meter in perspective, a nanometer is about the width of three or four atoms.

While in high school four years ago, I had the opportunity to delve into a newer, still expanding science: Genetics and Microbiology. I didn’t realize that these subjects are nothing without their technology, and because of this, have a lot more in common with what students at Farmington High School and Burnesville High School are learning. These students in Minnesota have the ability to work at Dakota County Technical College with the newest science on the block: nanotechnology.

The science of nanotechnology has emerged as a hybrid technology. It utilizes mechanics to create machinery that operates on both the atomic and molecular levels. If you remember your chemistry, you’ll recall the tiniest of the tiny: atoms, which cannot be broken down any further. Molecules are just groups of a few atoms. Essentially, scientists working in nanotech can manipulate atoms to create particles with a specified, desired structure. These particles often have subtly different structures from their original form with the addition of new or enhanced properties. For instance, by using nanotechnology, you could manipulate a certain metal to better withstand wind damage, which would allow you to build a more efficient airplane.

The students at Dakota County are using nanotech to build gold nanoparticles; at 100,000 times thinner than a strand of human hair, these particles are used in medicine to identify specific cancers or deliver treatment for arthritis. Although Dakota started its high school program just last year, and has had its Nanotech program for only eight years, it is now seen as a model for teaching nanotech and offers students the chance to use about $1 million worth of equipment. Dakota also represents the ability for high schools to ratchet up the complexity of academics offered.

This type of program allows students not only a chance to impress college admissions offices but also the opportunity to practice working in the college environment. Dakota gives high school students an authentic college setting, with classes meeting three days a week for lectures and two days a week for lab time. Although the students require an adjustment period to transition to the college environment, they are doing well, proving that although nanotech is a new science, it is by no means inaccessible.