Jul 6, 2020
Professor Sarah Tolbert

The annual CNSI Nanovation Competition at UCLA, directed by Professor Sarah Tolbert, sparks excitement about science and business in high schoolers.

The competition is part of the CNSI Education Program which Tolbert, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, directs. The program creates multidisciplinary education and training opportunities that supplement and enhance traditional degree programs and classroom curricula to prepare a new generation of science leaders who will apply science to emerging global challenges. For almost two decades, CNSI has collaborated with a dedicated group of UCLA researchers to create academic courses, workshops, professional development, and training opportunities that engage the educators of today and the students who will become the scientists of tomorrow.

From UCLA Newsroom (by Wayne Lewis) 

High schoolers learn science and business through Nanovation Competition

This year, nine student teams from Southern California pitched their nanotechnology products to an expert panel of judges. CNSI/UCLA

Durable, antimicrobial medical gloves. A system to help amputees avoid infection. A noninvasive treatment for blocked arteries. A gently glowing toy to lull children to sleep.

All of these potential technologies are based on physical interactions that that occur at the nanoscale, or tens of millionths of an inch. And while they won’t be hitting the retail market anytime soon, they provide a reason to hope for the future nonetheless — because the ideas are the work of teenagers.

The winning entries in UCLA’s fourth annual Nanovation Competition may not represent actual products — yet — but the science behind them is very real. That’s one of the core requirements of the contest, which invites Southern California middle and high school students to identify an important problem, dream up a nanotech-enabled solution and then create a plan for turning their idea into reality. Prize winners receive up to $2,000 for classroom supplies.

The competition, which merges STEM learning with an introduction to entrepreneurship, is one of the community education programs offered by the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, which also include workshops for teachers and summer institutes for high schoolers.

“We started the Nanovation Competition as a way to get students excited about science,” said Sarah Tolbert, faculty education director at CNSI and a professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “They start to see that science is not just an academic pursuit but something that can change people’s lives and improve society.”

Each team of four to five students is led by a teacher from their school and matched with one or two UCLA graduate student volunteers who help mentor the group and ensure the soundness of both their business plan and the underlying science.

As with so many other areas of life, the competition was affected by the coronavirus pandemic. In past years, it took place on campus and was loosely modeled after the TV show “Shark Tank,” with in-person presentations followed by Q&A sessions with a panel of judges including venture capitalists and UCLA faculty. This year, organizers pivoted to an online format in order to preserve students’ access to the educational opportunity.

Nine teams pitched their products in five-minute videos. Winners were announced via video on June 5.

First Place: LumiLight (Valencia High School) 

First place went to a team from Valencia High School for their LumiLight, an educational toy inspired by bioluminescent bacteria that young children can play with before bed in lieu of sleep-disrupting screen time.

Second prize: 405 Artery Jam (Alliance Ouchi High School)

  • The problem: atherosclerosis, a common and potentially lethal hardening of the arteries.
  • The solution: a targeted therapy packaged in nanoparticles, then guided and activated within the body by magnetic fields. (video)

Second prize (tie): Silver Linings Stump Care (Workman High School)

  • The problem: skin irritation and infection risk among amputees from the sockets of their prostheses.
  • The solution: a sock paired with a roll-on gel containing silver nanowires, which have antimicrobial properties (video)

Third prize: Nitriphene (Westminster High School)

  • The problem: deadly hospital-acquired infections
  • The solution: nitrile gloves bolstered with graphene, a layer of carbon one single atom thick, to impart durability and kill viruses, fungi and bacteria. (video)

Tolbert served as a judge for the competition, alongside Denise Avchen, chairperson and co-founder of the nonprofit Environmental Research Advocates, which also sponsored the supplies for the student teams and the winners’ prize money. Brian Benson of technology incubator MedTech Innovator, Howard Ko of venture capital firm Morpheus Ventures and Sonia Luna, the executive director of the CNSI, rounded out the judges’ panel.

In 2020, the run-up to the competition featured a new element: a financial planning model.

Luna distributed a spreadsheet that associated various operational requirements with their real-world costs. The tool was meant to focus students’ attention on how much money their fictive businesses would need to raise while also simplifying their decision-making. Teams received detailed instructions and had the opportunity for virtual coaching sessions.

“Not only did I want to help the students understand that bridge between their concept and commercialization, but I also wanted to increase their numerical literacy,” Luna said. “I believe that’s really important from a scientific standpoint and a business standpoint.”

Beyond the learning experience for students, teachers also gain from participating in the Nanovation Competition, often picking up new instructional approaches.

“We’ve had teachers change the way they assign science projects,” said Rita Blaik, the CNSI’s director of education. “They introduce the idea that students can apply the science to real-world problems in projects that are feasible both from a technological standpoint and a business standpoint.”

The Nanovation Competition’s organizers noted that the lynchpin of this educational effort is the UCLA graduate students who work closely with student teams.

“The whole program wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have a dedicated group of graduate student volunteers,” Tolbert said. “They’re doing it because they want to use their scientific knowledge to help improve education in the L.A. area. Many public schools need help with science education, and this is a space where our grad students can make a difference.”


Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, penny@chem.ucla.edu.