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Can we make things that make themselves?


We know the nano world is very small and that the forces really influence the way nanomaterials interact. Let's take the idea one step further and explore how we could use forces to make things that make themselves.


Consider the term "self-assembly". What does it mean? Can you come up with an example of something that self-assembles? (Hint: She's sitting in your chair and looks a lot like you!). remember back to the Gummy Shapes (DIY) -  Next, watch the Nova video below to begin thinking about all the great applications of self-assembly in the world around you. Then take those great ideas and begin investigating self-assembly using the pans and floating magnets. End by making sense of what you learn. 


Watch Making Stuff: Stronger on PBS. See more from NOVA.


  • Grab your notebook and set up the pans.
    • Add water (about 1") so the foam pieces will float.
    • In your notebooks:
      • Identify the characteristics of the building blocks (magnets).
      • Identify the characteristics of the environment (pan and water).
      • Predict how the building blocks will organize and assemble.
  • Look for patterns as you add magnets (one at a time - and same color facing upward) to the round pan - 27 or so should do it.
    • What do you notice? Yes! This is an excellent thing to record in your notebook.
    • Use the question prompts to help deepen your thinking.
  • Repeat and look for patterns using the square pan - 24 or so should do it.
  • If you have time, try turning over one foam piece and see what happens. Be sure to record this in your notebook! Feel free to try it as many times as you like until you see a pattern.

Why this works

This session introduces the idea of self-assembly, which will be further developed at the next few stops along our journey. The video provides you with a real-world context and the investigation asks you apply your background knowledge of forces to a new scenario.

Wrap Up

Write a word or draw a symbol in your notebook that represents an activity concept which you found important. Write 1-2 sentences about your symbol. Once you have done this, hold your paper up and pair with someone who has an image similar to yours. Discuss your choice of symbol with them; be sure to practice your conversation skills. Finally, share your key idea with the larger group.


  • Notebook
  • Water
  • Aluminum pie pans - 8-9" circular and square
  • Magnets with foam circles and squares
  • Towels to dry materials when done 



Based on

Sandra Weeks,
Feb 27, 2014, 10:40 AM