Unit Using Nanoparticles to Detect, Treat and Protect from Skin Cancer

Two images: Photograph of a toddler on the beach rubbing a white lotion on her legs. A diagram shows drawings of five nanomaterial structures, ranging from 1-100 nm, include liposome, fullerene, dendrimer, carbon nanotube and graphene.
Students explore the role of nanoparticles in detecting, treating and protecting against skin cancer
Copyright © (left) 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved. (right) 2014 Sureshbup, Wikimedia Commons http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/images/results.aspx?qu=beach&ex=1#ai:MP900422603|mt:2| http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Comparison_of_nanomaterials_sizes.jpg


This unit on nanoparticles engages students with a hypothetical Grand Challenge Question that asks about the skin cancer risk for someone living in Australia, given the local UV index and the condition of the region's ozone layer. The question asks how nanoparticles might be used to help detect, treat and protect people from skin cancer. Through three lessons, students learn about the science of electromagnetic radiation and energy waves, human skin and its response to ultraviolet radiation, and the state of medical nanotechnology related to skin cancer. Through three hands-on activities, students perform flame tests to become familiar with the transfer of energy in quantum form, design and conduct their own quality-control experiments to test sun protection factors (SPFs), and write nanotechnology grant proposals.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

The unit has a strong biomedical engineering connection through the examination of how nanoparticles are currently being researched and designed to provide ways to protect against, detect and treat cancer. Advances in laser technology are being used for early detection of skin cancer, a diagnostic method that does not require surgical removal of moles or lesions (as shown in a video in lesson 2). Students experience engineering experimental design as they design quality-control experiments to test the validity of claims of sun protection factors and present their findings to the class for review. An environmental engineering aspect is briefly discussed as students begin the unit by contemplating the human health implications of the destruction of the ozone layer due to pollution over parts of Australia, leading to that country's one in three skin cancer rate.

Unit Overview

This "legacy cycle" unit is structured with a contextually based Grand Challenge followed by a sequence of instruction in which students first offer initial predictions (Generate Ideas) and then gather information from multiple sources (Multiple Perspectives). This is followed by Research and Revise as students integrate and extend their knowledge through a variety of learning activities. The cycle concludes with formative (Test Your Mettle) and summative (Go Public) assessments that lead students towards answering the Challenge question. See below for the progression of the legacy cycle through the unit. Research and ideas behind this way of learning may be found in How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, National Academy Press, 2000); see the entire text at https://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309070368.

The legacy cycle is similar to the engineering design process in that they both involve identifying an existing societal need, applying science and math to develop solutions and using the research conclusions to design a clear, conceived solution to the challenge. Though the engineering design process and the legacy cycle both result in correct and accurate solutions, each focuses differently on how the solution is devised and presented. See an overview of the engineering design process at https://www.teachengineering.org/populartopics/designprocess.

In lesson 1, Electromagnetic Radiation, students are introduced to the Grand Challenge Question. They learn about electromagnetic radiation, energy of a photon, dual particle/wave model of light, wavelength and frequency. They Generate Ideas as they write journal entries to a research question posed at the beginning of the lesson What Is Ultraviolet Radiation? By sharing their ideas as a class, students are exposed to Multiple Perspectives regarding the topics. A homework assignment on energy completes the Test Your Mettle phase of this lesson. Students then work out the problems on the board as part of the Go Public phase. In the associated activity, Flame Test: Red, Green, Blue Violet?, students perform a flame test to become familiar with the transfer of energy in the form of quantum.

In lesson 2, Skin and the Effects of Ultraviolet Radiation, students learn the layers of human skin, the effects of ultraviolet radiation on human skin, and how the breaking down of the ozone layer due to pollution can lead to an increase in skin cancer. Additional research questions are posed to students about skin structure and function: What is the structure and function of skin? How does UV radiation affect the chemical reactions that go on within the skin? They journal responses as part of the Generate Ideas phase and share their responses as a class to gain Multiple Perspectives. To extend the Multiple Perspectives phase, students watch a video interview of Dr. Anita Jansen on laser skin treatment. Students Research and Revise as they are shown a UV bead demonstration, participate in a lecture on the structure and function of skin and skin cancer, and learn about the sun protection factor (SPF) rating system used in sunscreen products. In the How Effective Is Your Sunscreen? associated activity, students design quality control experiments to test those substances (Test Your Mettle).

In lesson 3, Nanotechnology and Cancer Treatments, students delve into the use of nanoparticles in the treatment and detection of cancer. They learn about nanotechnology cancer research and some laboratory procedures, such as electrophoresis and lasers that heat activate nanoparticles. Then students Go Public by writing nanotechnology grant proposals in the Nanotechnology Grant Proposal Writing associated activity.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

See individual lessons and activities for standards alignment.


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Unit Schedule

Days 1-3: Electromagnetic Radiation (lesson 1)

Day 4: Flame Test: Red, Green, Blue, Violet? (activity1)

Days 5-6: Skin and the Effects of Ultraviolet Radiation (lesson 2)

Days 7-8: How Effective Is Your Sunscreen? (activity 2)

Days 9-10: Nanotechnology and Cancer Treatments (lesson 3)

Days 11-12: Nanotechnology Grant Proposal Writing (activity 3)

More Curriculum Like This

High School Lesson
Skin and the Effects of Ultraviolet Radiation

After seeing ultraviolet-sensitive beads change color and learning how they work, students learn about skin anatomy and the effects of ultraviolet radiation on human skin, pollution's damaging effect on the ozone layer that can lead to increases in skin cancer, the UV index, types of skin cancer, AB...

High School Lesson
Electromagnetic Radiation

Students learn about the electromagnetic spectrum, ultraviolet radiation (including UVA, UVB and UVC rays), photon energy, the relationship between wave frequency and energy (c = λν), as well as about the Earth's ozone-layer protection and that nanoparticles are being used for medical applications

High School Lesson
Nanotechnology and Cancer Treatments

Students learn about the biomedical use of nanoparticles in the detection and treatment of cancer, including the use of quantum dots and lasers that heat-activate nanoparticles. They also learn about electrophoresis—a laboratory procedure that uses an electric field to move tiny particles through a ...


Students complete the curricular unit by writing nanotechnology research grant proposals, which serves to demonstrate their understanding of the topics taught in the preceding lessons and activities through the presentation of lab data and calculations and other information to support their research plans and funding request. See the Nanotechnology Grant Proposal Writing for more details.


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2010 Vanderbilt University


Michelle Bell, Amber Spolarich

Supporting Program

VU Bioengineering RET Program, School of Engineering, Vanderbilt University


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under National Science Foundation RET grant nos. 0338092 and 0742871. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the NSF, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: February 13, 2024

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