She continued to study chemical vapor deposition. One of her biggest projects over the years has been trying to develop a new way to coat solar panels with silicon nitride (an antireflective coating) at atmospheric pressure, rather than in the vacuum chambers the industry normally uses. In theory this could bring down the cost of manufacturing solar panels, which currently cost too much to make to compete successfully with oil and gas as energy sources. In 2005 she and a small company called GT Solar Technologies won a $100,000 Air Force grant to develop and commercialize the technology.
What she's doing now: Amato-Wierda enjoyed working on solar technologies, but soon, GT Solar Technologies decided to focus on different research, and on manufacturing.
Eventually Amato-Wierda decided to move on as well, to study how people—children in particular—learn about the particulate nature of matter. U.N.H. research psychologist Michelle Leichtman has been working with Amato-Wierda over the past few months, studying how the students in her materials science classes retrieve information when answering exam questions or working out problems. "I sought out Carmela because I knew her outside the research arena as a devoted science teacher," Leichtman says, noting that Amato-Wierda's eight-year-old son's birthday party was an "unforgettable scene" in which a dozen children learned about the properties of dry ice.
"I've always been fascinated to understand how people learn science—chemistry in particular—because we spend a lot of time trying to teach and sometimes I feel like we don't get very far," Amato-Wierda says. She is convinced that "it has to do with how people interact with the material we're presenting. They're not a blank slate." So she's working with psychologists like Leichtman and behavioral scientists to figure out ways to do classroom testing and set up experiments to understand what makes some people grasp chemical concepts more readily than others. If kids learn very early on that there is a world that can be seen in a magnifying glass, a world of extremely small things all around us, will these children be more comfortable with the concept of an atom or molecule later on?
"Carmela is an ideal collaborator because she has an infectious passion for the physical sciences, years of careful observation of how students approach scientific material, and a profound interest in understanding how to improve their conceptual mastery," Leichtman says. "In her classrooms, she uses an unusual array of hands-on exercises to drive home the relevance of material to students"—for instance, stringing together chains of beads she purchased at Wal-Mart to represent the structure of polymers.
The idea is to help science educators do their jobs better. "What I'm hoping to do is figure out better ways that we can teach chemistry," Amato-Wierda says. "Everyone needs to understand science because it's so important to everyday living."