St Aidan's Church of England High School

Can particles that are a million times smaller than a centimetre be useful for medical imaging?

Subject: Physics
Age: Secondary
Students: 29 pupils

Location: Yorkshire
Year: 2010
Grant: £1400

Teacher: Dr Lucy Holt
Scientist: Dr Kevin Critchley, Lecturer, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leeds

A group of year 8 pupils learnt all about the chemical reactions that produce nanoparticles and then attempted some of these reactions in their classroom. They subsequently took their particles to a research laboratory at Leeds University, and used the professional research equipment there to view their nanoparticles in close-up!

Creating the nanoparticle mixture.

The pupils were first visited at school by Dr Chritchley, a Leeds University’ academic who studies the synthesis and function of nanoparticles and nanostructures in medical imaging. He told them more about nanoparticles and how they are making an impact in medicine for their use in drug delivery, diagnostic imaging and therapy. In groups, the students then set out to make iron-oxide nanoparticles with chemical reactions using the equipment and chemicals provided by the Partnership Grant. They found that this process was more complex than the simple chemical reactions they had studied in class and greatly enjoyed the challenge! They used the strong magnets provided with the Partnership Grant to discovery how their particles had magnetic properties.  

"We visited 3 main microscopes...one that used electrons is probably the most accurate because you can also see the surface very accurately and it can show a very minute level. This was probably my most favourite microscope because of its accuracy."
Pupil

They were very excited by the next stage of the project: the trip to the research Laboratory at Leeds University. After a tour of the physics department, the results of their experiments at school were revealed and it transpired that five of the six groups had successfully produced nanoparticles with an average size of 15nm, not many year 8s can say that! They were able to study their particles in further detail using three pieces of professional research equipment, namely transmission electron microscopes, x-ray photoelectron spectroscopes and atomic force microscopes. They were particularly impressed with the size (and cost!) of the transmission electron microscopes and their ability to see their nanoparticles in the images. The pupils also received a very interesting talk on MRI (Magnetic Resource Imaging) technology and how iron oxide particles can be used to increase the contrast in MRI scanners. However, it was not only the year 8 pupils that benefited from the trip. They were also accompanied by several year 12 students who were interested to find out more about studying Physics at University level; one pupil of which has since gone on to pursue a physics degree!

"They were proud to have done a project that few other school children have attempted and to see their own samples on genuine research equipment."
Dr Holt

The whole school also looks set to benefit from the project. Details of the pupils’ experiments and findings have now been passed to other teachers, so that further classes get the chance to discover more about nanoparticles. These other students will also be able to use the magnets and leftover chemicals from the project. Similarly, it is hoped that the trip to Leeds University will be repeated in the future, both to the Physics department and to the Chemistry department as well.