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Big fun in a tiny package: October STEM Café explores nanotechnology, making stuff smaller

October 15, 2012

Photo of magnified blood cellsImagine a TV screen made of flexible material that you can roll up and put in your pocket. Picture tiny robots coursing through veins to target cancers without damaging healthy cells.

This isn’t a remake of “The Fantastic Voyage,” it is the future of nanotechnology, a field of materials science that is transforming the way we live, work and play.

On Tuesday, Oct. 23, NIU STEM Outreach will present its next STEM Café “Making Stuff Smaller,” an exploration into the world of nanotechnology and materials science. The discussion will take place at 6:30 P.M. at Cabana Charley’s, 1470 South Peace Road, in Sycamore.

STEM Cafés are fun, casual events that offer adults an opportunity to eat, drink, and chat with scientists about the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). These events are free and open to the public.  Food and drinks will be available for purchase from Cabana Charley’s.

Making Stuff Smaller will be hosted by Tao Xu, associate professor in NIU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Dr. Xu will make a brief presentation and discuss just what nanotechnology is, how it works and how it is paving the way toward new renewable energy technology. After the talk, he will lead the audience in a question and answer session.

Tao Xu

Tao Xu

When examining materials on the nanoscale (billionths of a meter), Xu said, the compositions and properties of materials we think we know actually behave in interesting and unexpected ways.

“If you find a way to cut an American Eagle gold bullion into very tiny pieces,” says Xu, “as tiny as a tenth of a thousandth of a diameter of your hair, these tiny gold pieces are no longer gold in color. Instead, they will become red, green, or even blue.” Understanding materials on this intimate, microscopic level is helping scientists revolutionize the future of everything from energy to medical care to transportation.

Making Stuff Smaller is the second in STEM Café’s four-part series, Making Stuff. The events were inspired by NOVA’s Making Stuff television series, which has been airing on PBS this fall.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 13, STEM Café will continue its programming at Cabana Charley’s with “Making Stuff Cleaner.” Experts will share information on new technologies that increase efficiency and reduce energy waste.

STEM Cafés are just one of the many community events offered by NIU STEM Outreach throughout the year. Their largest annual event, STEMfest, is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, at the NIU Convocation Center.

STEMfest offers hundreds of hands-on STEM activities for learners of all ages and is expected to attract nearly 5,000 to DeKalb. Visitors will get to do everything from walk through a “haunted” physics lab to dissect cow eyeballs. About 500 NIU student and faculty volunteers will be on hand to explain the science behind these amazing experiences.

To learn more about STEM Cafés, STEMfest and other STEM Outreach events, visit