For more than a decade, Alberta Innovates has been the sponsor of a unique travelling electron microscope program that's introduced thousands of young students to the world of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology involves studying matter at a near-atomic scale (nano stands for one billionth; a nanometre is one billionth of a metre). Working with matter at such a minute scale opens up numerous possibilities, including new applications in medicine, energy and engineering.

Thanks to the program, elementary, junior high and high school students in the Edmonton and Calgary areas have been able to learn for many years about nanotechnology through the use of a special scanning electron microscope (SEM). The tabletop machine shoots an electron beam at specimens at high energy to form images. Each specimen - whether the eye of a fly or the cell of a leaf or a grain of sand - is magnified thousands of times to the smallest detail.

Looking through the electron microscope could inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers

"It's been fantastic for young people to be able to see objects at such a nano-level. It's exactly the kind of activity we hope could spark their interest in a future science career," says Marlene Huerta, Alberta Innovates' principal business advisor for post-secondary investments and emerging technologies, and the person who has overseen this program funding.

"It has been one of the best run programs of its kind anywhere because it brings the electron microscope to students of all backgrounds," adds Jose Raez, Alberta Innovates' senior business partner in health innovation and the program's originator, when he was working at the National Research Council of Canada Nanotechnology Research Centre (formerly the National Institute of Nanotechnology or NINT).

Delivering the program

To deliver the SEM program, the agency partners with the Centre for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education (CMASTE) and the NRC Nanotechnology Research Centre, both located at the University of Alberta.

Two retired teachers hired by CMASTE have been taking the microscope to schools in the Edmonton and Calgary areas, looking after bookings and working with students and teachers to help them use the equipment and interpret the results. The NRC Nanotechnology Research Centre maintains the microscopes and provides technical support, while Alberta Innovates funds the program through annual grants to CMASTE.

To learn the story behind this unique program, we have to go back to 2010.

"It all started with a bold new idea," remembers Raez, who joined Alberta Innovates earlier this fall. Back in 2010, Raez was NINT's business development officer, liaising with companies to transfer technology expertise to Alberta. NINT had recently acquired state-of-the-art electron microscopes for its new research centre in Edmonton, through a partnership with the federal and Alberta governments and Hitachi High Technologies.

As an offshoot of the deal, Hitachi offered to donate a $130,000 tabletop electron microscope if NINT and others were interested in starting up an electron microscopy program to encourage science awareness in local schools. Hitachi had successfully sponsored similar microscopy programs in Japan and was now looking to replicate this success in Canada.

"This had never been done before in Alberta. We thought, wow, that's an interesting idea to get young people excited about nanotechnology," Raez says.

Building support through collaboration

Intrigued, Raez set to work to build support for the idea in Edmonton. First, he got buy-in from NINT, one of the top nano-research facilities in the country. Next, after talking to local educators, he contacted CMASTE, a non-profit that does science education outreach in the community.  Would they be interested in helping to deliver the program? CMASTE quickly said yes. Finally, he reached out to Alberta Innovates predecessor NanoAlberta, who agreed to fund program costs through a grant to NINT, which in turn contracted CMASTE.

"Right away we had a strong response. Everyone wanted to be a part of this program," Raez says.

With that, the program was launched in Edmonton in fall 2010.  As word got out, soon schools in Edmonton were signing up for the travelling SEM program. Three years later, in 2013, the program was expanded to Calgary. To make this possible, CMASTE hired an additional teacher for Calgary while Alberta Innovates Technology Futures (AITF), now the program funder, purchased a second microscope.

"We said we need to make this program more provincial," says Huerta, who began managing the program funding in 2012.

An unqualified success

By 2015, the SEM program was reaching 5,000 students across 40 schools a year. By 2018, it's estimated that more than 30,000 students had participated in the program since its inception. Today Alberta Innovates continues to fund the program with lesser but more focused activity within one Alberta high school at a time.

Judging from past survey results, the SEM program has had the desired impact, with some students calling the experience "amazing," others remembering their first moments looking through the microscope ("controlling the microscope and seeing the fly's eye and the ant was super cool!") and others thinking of new career possibilities ("I imagine it would be fun using a large microscope every day and discovering new things to advance the sciences.").

Both Huerta and Raez consider the program an unqualified success.

"It's one of my favorite program stories. Over the years it's fair to say this program has had a significant impact in exposing students to nanotechnology," Huerta says.

Raez adds: "If you want to create the next generation of homegrown scientists, it starts with young people. With this program, Alberta Innovates and its predecessors understood this right from the beginning. It's been awesome."

Today Alberta Innovates is leveraging Raez's nanotechnology knowledge and experience, in his new role as the agency's senior business partner working to support health technologies.

"I knew that one of the places in Alberta to be involved in the full innovation ecosystem is through Alberta Innovates. To be part of this is a big plus," Raez says.