INSIGHT: Nanotech education needs a new Sputnik

31 January 2008 15:29  [Source: ICIS news]

Sputnik triggered a US science revolutionBy Joe Kamalick


WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--Fifty years ago today the US put its first satellite, Explorer I, into orbit - and simultaneously launched a massive and urgent expansion in scientific education, research and development (R&D) and private and public funding for science.


The orbiting of Explorer I on 31 January 1958 was part of a near-panic national response to the Soviet Union’s surprise launch of Sputnik I barely four months earlier on 4 October 1957.


As anyone on the upside of 60 will remember, Sputnik was a huge deal, a breathtaking achievement and a major shock to the US psyche.


It triggered the greatest scientific and technological expansion that the US or perhaps any nation has ever seen. Congress was in a panic. President Dwight Eisenhower established the National Aeronautic & Space Administration (NASA) and ordered a crash development programme to get the US into the space race.


Eisenhower also established a lesser known entity, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), whose mission was to ensure that Uncle Sam would never again get blind-sided by advanced technical developments.


Hundreds of thousands of bright young students and educators were inspired by the space race and eagerly crowded classrooms and laboratories in universities and private R&D centres across the country.


The legacies of that urgent scientific expansion in the middle of the last century are very much with us today and probably are too numerous to itemize. 


Our cell phones receive and send voice and data through orbiting communications satellites that make Explorer I look like a pencil. Most of us in the developed world spend at least part of our day on the Internet, which grew from the top-secret computer network first established by DARPA.


However, many people argue that in the half-century since Sputnik and Explorer I, that exciting and urgent impetus to advanced scientific learning and research has waned.


“We need another Sputnik,” says Jack Coats, director of nanobiology development for FEI Company, a manufacturer of imaging and analysis equipment for nanoscale research.


Coats was among scientists and educators who gathered on Capitol Hill recently to rally support for nanotechnology education and training in Congress and among the general public.


The meeting was called by the American Chemical Society (ACS) as part of its Science & the Congress Project, meant to keep US political leaders aware of scientific issues.


Coats and others in the US education and scientific communities think we need another Sputnik, another technological shock that will once again energize educators and students, government and the private sector to a renewed scientific expansion.


They fear that the US is falling behind, that it is at risk of losing the technological and scientific edge that has helped keep the American economy vibrant and advancing.


The struggle to maintain US technological, scientific and engineering leadership will not be fought only in the trade lanes between Los Angeles and Shanghai or even in the graduate programmes at MIT and Peking University.


In fact, the real heart of the fight for global technology leadership is being waged right now - and perhaps is being lost - in Ms Wilson’s seventh-grade class in Public School 14 in Springfield, Tennessee, or Springfield, Missouri, or the Springfields in Oregon, Michigan and Pennsylvania or in hundreds of other towns across the country.


It is there, in middle schools (grades 6 through 8) and high schools (9-12) that the US must open a new front in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, known as STEM learning.


For no matter how excellent and advanced our universities and private sector labs may be, if there are too few STEM students coming up from middle schools and high schools, there will be too few bright minds to enter those higher halls of learning.


ACS President Bruce Bursten, who was among those meeting with congressional officials and staffers, holds that nanotechnology may be the modern equivalent of the 1960s space race, the one scientific focus that will bring the next great leap forward in technical advances.


As a chemical engineer, Bursten also holds that chemistry is the bedrock of nanotechnology, but he allows that it is inherently inter-disciplinary, drawing from physics, biology, engineering and other fields as well as chemistry.


It is in those crucial areas of multi-discipline education, says Joseph Krajcik of the University of Michigan, that the US is failing.


Krajcik, also at the Capitol Hill mini-rally, is a professor of science education and a principle investigator at the university’s centre for learning and teaching nanoscale science and engineering.


He told members of Congress and Hill staffers that US science education at the grades 6-12 level fails to help students grasp the major concepts of nanoscience and the connectivity among science disciplines.


Those shortcomings are in part due to science teaching materials, he said, that have not made the transition to the 21st Century.


“Science curriculum materials today cover many topics at a superficial level,” he said. “They lack coherent explanations of real-world phenomena, and they fail to provide students the opportunity to develop explanations of phenomena.”


In addition, he said, a related problem for lower-level academic science instruction is the lack of adequate programmes for long-term professional development for science teachers. 


Debra Newberry, director of the NanoScience Programme at Dakota County Technical College near Minneapolis, Minnesota, said there is a major opportunity for corporations in the chemical and other pertinent sciences to help advance nanotech education at all levels.


She said cooperation between school districts and universities on one hand and science-based industries on the other can help match needs and resources, perhaps to fund and equip nanotech learning centres that could offer both hands-on and remote access for local schools to costly research equipment that can give students their first entry to the nanoscale world.


Newberry cited research indicating that by 2015, the annual global impact of nanotech-related products will exceed $1,000bn and will require 2m nanotechnology workers.

By: Joe Kamalick
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