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Student Excitement is a Big Factor in the Future of Nano

Written by Stephen Danforth, Chair, Department of Ceramic and Materials Engineering, Malcolm G. McLaren Center for Ceramic Research, School of Engineering, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

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Editor’s Note: In today's information age, computers, cell phones, and DVDs all help to make children aware of what technology can do for them personally. But children know little about the field of nanotechnology. In the following essay, Dr. Stephen Danforth talks about his efforts to bring nanotechnology into K-12 classrooms, and to make nanotechnology an integral part of future science and engineering curricula.

I self-assembled from a few DNA nanoparticles in the early 1950s and was born just in time to join a young American population increasingly transfixed with technology. We baby-boomers had no choice. World War II had sparked both the arms race and the space race, and to be in elementary school in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s was to be exposed to both technological threat and wonder.

It was exciting, it generated emotion, and it galvanized a generation. I'm sure one of the reasons I became an engineer was the thrill of discovery I experienced through the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.

Interestingly, though fear and wonder kept us emotionally involved, cutting-edge technology tended to be something that was "out there." For example, my own hands-on technological experience as a young person involved the wonders of the automobile, the television and the dishwasher. Who knew that the laser beams I only wondered about would someday be used to correct vision and to check out items in the supermarket?

Today, the information age, the computer revolution, cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players, DVDs – they all make kids much more aware of what technology can do for them personally. But is there any wonder and emotion to it? Is there a thrill of discovery that will drive the new generations to study and work in the materials engineering disciplines?

That's one of my hopes for nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology, the science of manipulating matter at the atomic and molecular levels, has already created a buzz in our culture. The mainstream media has begun to introduce concepts like a space elevator built of super-strong nanomaterials. We've had glimpses of nano's role in reducing carbon emissions and helping to solve global warming. There is also talk of nanomachines small enough to work in our bodies to deliver medicine and make repairs.


Caption: High school "nano interns", who worked in Rutgers nano labs during the summer, returned in December to give other high school students a peer-level look at nanotechnology during Nano Day.
Photo Credit: Rutgers University
Click here for an enlarged image.

When I talk with first-year college students in engineering who haven't decided on a direction yet, many of them mention nano. They don't necessarily know what nano is, but they've heard of it and on some level they're excited about it. It has an appeal and attraction that traditional ceramic and materials engineering never quite seemed to muster. The reasons? Certainly media coverage helps. Another appeal may be a short, catchy name. "Nano" is even more fun to say than "space race."

At Rutgers, we're beginning to analyze that appeal and where it might lead. We've begun a dialogue with social science faculty in our Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy to look at nanotechnology's role in society.

One way or another, nanotechnology impacts all our lives, and it's crucial for both teachers and students to understand as much as possible about the subject. Both groups not only need to play a role in the advancement of nanotechnology, they need to help guide it. Otherwise, in a very short time, industry is going to find itself in a squeeze for nano know-how.

As a major research university, Rutgers has long had graduate faculty with world-class nano expertise --developing new materials, technology, and processes. A sampling of our work involving nanotechnology includes: carbon nanotubes for microelectronic applications; biomaterials; damage and failure resistant materials; membranes for gas separation; battery and fuel cell applications; molecular dynamic simulations of surfaces and interfaces; immiscible polymer processing; photonic materials and devices; and transparent and enhanced armor.

In recent years, we've begun methodically transferring this expertise, not only to our undergraduates, but to K-12 teachers and students wherever we can reach them.

Workforce development is crucial. In 2001, Rutgers’ School of Engineering received a $2.5 million Workforce Excellence grant from the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education. Under this grant, Lisa Klein, a fellow ceramics and engineering professor, and I have two mandates -- develop not only a state-of-the-art interdisciplinary undergraduate curriculum in nanotechnology, including expanding faculty and equipping labs, but reach out to high schools, middle schools and even elementary schools about the subject.

Nanotechnology outreach to the schools kicked into high gear at Rutgers last summer. In our month-long New Jersey Governor's School for Science and Technology, Professors Klein and George Sigel each worked with groups of six or seven high school students doing projects in nano. We also had 10 or 15 summer nano interns -- high school sophomores and juniors spending eight weeks here with grad students and faculty, working in the lab, touching things, and coming up with ideas.


Caption: Assistant Research Professor Holly Crawford leads a discussion with New Jersey high school science teachers at December's Nano Day at Rutgers. Stephen C. Danforth is seated to her left.
Photo Credit: Rutgers University
Click here for an enlarged image.

The excitement continued during the fall as a group led by Assistant Research Professor Holly Crawford held the first of what we hope will be many "Nano Days" for high school teachers and students. The event brought about 20 teachers and an equal number of students to Rutgers for a Saturday morning of lab tours and discussions about nano-scale science and technology. Some of our summer nano interns even returned to provide a student-to-student aspect to the event. Our goals? Exposure to the tools and techniques, interaction with the researchers, and an opportunity to bring nanotechnology from “out there” to “right here.”

For the teachers, we gathered some of the best available materials on the subject into specific categories: definitions, history, study, government and K-12 education initiatives. We assembled it into a document, "Nanotechnology and Nanomaterials: A Resource Guide for K-12 Teachers," and discussed how to build understanding and excitement about nano in the classroom. The general response, as reflected in this teachers' comment card, was, “Now I have some insight as to how to present nano information in my classes.”

Nanotechnology at a non-collegiate level is going to be crucial in the years ahead if we hope to cultivate a workforce. We find that many of our incoming engineering students have relatives, who are mechanical engineers or electrical engineers, who were able to offer insight and guidance about careers in those areas. But there are very few uncles or aunts out there with nano experience. Our outreach efforts are designed to help fill that role.

Future plans include providing Rutgers graduate and undergraduate students with the materials and training to go into the lower grades and introduce nano concepts. Greyhairs like me could be a forbidding presence in a fifth-grade classroom. But a 20-year-old with the right haircut demonstrating the difference between an optical microscope and a scanning tunneling microscope? That's rock-star material. Capturing the imagination of a fifth-grader today could have measurable benefits just a few years from now as high schoolers begin positioning themselves for their futures.

At Rutgers, we are mobilized to spread the word about nanotechnology far beyond our campus; and we are excited about it. If my space/arms-race youth taught me anything about public interest and willingness to support science, it’s that emotion is always a key driving force. Today, building emotion about science means nurturing the wonder of nanotechnology.

The ingredients of excitement and the thrill of discovery are on the table, the nano fun is just beginning, and we’re inviting everyone to the party.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

For more information about nanotechnology, visit EurekAlert!'s Nanotechnology In-Context Module.

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