Businesses need to plant nano seeds in schools, NNI chief says

Click here to enlarge image

RICHMOND, Va., Dec. 3, 2002 — The economic power of small tech will go unrealized unless businesses, educators and researchers equip the next generation of workers: America’s schoolchildren.

That was the message Mihail “Mike” Roco, senior adviser for nanotechnology at the National Science Foundation (NSF), gave to a group of Virginia science teachers at a conference here recently. He interspersed his hour-long talk by having teachers perform a few hands-on exercises using instructional materials that could be used in classrooms to stoke students’ interest in the nanosciences.

Roco, who spearheads the NSF’s National Nanotechnology Initiative, elaborated on the potential snag to growing small tech industries. As nanotechnology moves into the mainstream, he said, companies building products at the atomic level eventually will face a serious shortage of talent — far worse than what is already occurring.

Click here to enlarge image

Within the next 10 to 15 years, Roco estimated, about two million nanotech-trained workers will be needed to support growing industries and the startups they spawn. “The business implications are that we need to find ways to motivate students about the sciences, and create a pipeline for the future work force,” Roco said.

Roco is encouraging research universities receiving NSF funds to partner with local elementary, middle and high school teachers to write grants for developing instructional materials, such as those he handed out to teachers attending his talk. They included a thin magnetic probe that was dragged across a magnet to demonstrate the rudimentary principles behind an atomic force microscope (AFM). Another tool was a diffraction slide that, when illuminated by a small laser-emitting diode, demonstrates how different atomic arrangements affect the shape of objects.

One part of the NNI’s mission is to develop education models at the nation’s research universities. Efforts include funding research centers and improving nanotech-based science curricula at universities. Equally important, Roco said, is establishing nanotechnology curricula in public schools, which teach about 50 million children from kindergarten through grade 12.

“The (federal) Department of Education needs to begin exploring in-service programs to equip high school science teachers,” Roco said.

The NSF last summer provided funding for a four-year project that paired Virginia high school teachers with research faculty at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Va. Five Virginia public school teachers of high school biology, chemistry, earth science, physics and mathematics joined Virginia Tech faculty members and graduate students to use new adaptations of atomic force microscopes to increase knowledge of microbe-mineral interactions. These interactions are considered important to groundwater research.

Teachers prepared lessons in physics and math based on the principles of AFM operation, and discovered ways to use the research and its findings in biology, physics, mathematics, chemistry and earth sciences lessons. The broader purpose is to help secondary school teachers incorporate nanosciences into classroom studies, researchers say.

“One of my objectives is to get graduate students used to doing outreach. I want them to recognize the power of working with K-12 teachers and students,” said Susan Eriksson, the Virginia Tech geological sciences professor who spearheaded the project. She also helped organize the science teachers’ conference at which Roco spoke.

To date, however, businesses are conspicuously absent from the effort — despite having a vested interest in nurturing the next generation of workers. An exception is NanoSonic Inc., a 4-year-old company launched by Virginia Tech engineering professor Rick Claus. NanoSonic has patented a process known as electrostatic self-assembly, or ESA, which is used to create thin films for a variety of industries. NanoSonic created a kit for use in schools, in which students are able to apply the same principles that NanoSonic uses in its lab.

So far, Claus said, NanoSonic has sent its $10 kits to about 20 different school groups, including some in Europe. A newer kit is being produced that would enable students to build photovoltaic cells, using the same ESA process.

Nathan Swami, a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, heads the Initiative for Nanotechnology in Virginia. The statewide consortium of universities, federal labs and industrial partners is concerned that few businesses are alive to the consequences of not producing small tech-trained professionals. “We’re more focused on work force development, not curriculum,” Swami said.

The future of nanotechnology depends on nurturing youngsters and exposing them to its advanced multidisciplinary nature, Roco said. He recalled the enthusiasm he encountered during a recent speech to a group of about 5,000 high school students in Texas. Following his speech, the students bombarded him with questions about nanotechnology. Four hours later, Roco finally was able to step away from the podium.

That’s the type of enthusiasm he said needs to be infectious in U.S. secondary schools. He likens nanotech to the information technology industry in Germany several years ago. The industry never took off because German schools weren’t producing high numbers of skilled computer technicians, which the industry needs. Likewise, U.S. companies need to work closer with universities and schools to help build a critical mass of potential small tech workers.

“We want to communicate the wonders of nanotechnology,” he said, “without using scientific jargon.”


Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account. Comments won't automatically be posted to your social media accounts unless you select to share.