By Nick Clunn
Setting up high school students with atomic-force microscopes and optical profilers so they can study nanotechnology may seem like a science teacher’s dream, but it’s already happening in at least one school in the United States.
And the amount of outside financial support received by Wheeling High School in Illinois to make the lab a reality, coupled with efforts to encourage teachers to emphasize the field, suggests that more labs may soon be cropping up. The focus on nanotech in Wheeling and elsewhere speaks to its potential.
Studying matter on such a small scale—there are 24.5 million nanometers in an inch—can lead scientists to find new ways to strengthen materials, control light and alter chemical reactivity. A substance called nanoclay, for instance, can be embedded in plastic food packaging to extend the shelf life of perishables.
But the challenge faced by nanotech industry is having enough scientists to drive innovation. Nanotechnology is part of the broader STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field, which will produce 8.6 million jobs in 2018, according to data cited by Wheeling from the National Math and Science Initiative. But a shortage of qualified workers may cause as many as 3 million of those positions to go unfilled.
Therein lies the incentive for government and industry to invest in educational endeavors, such as the $615,000 nanotechnology lab that opened in Wheeling in time for this school year. About 40 percent of that cost was covered by state funds administered by the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition of businesses, colleges and research labs.
The nonprofit coalition, which supports efforts to enhance STEM education, will also coordinate the lab’s use as a regional resource for other schools and businesses through Illinois Pathways. That program, which also promotes the advancement of STEM areas, is partially funded by a federal Race to the Top grant.
Academia providing support
Major research universities are also playing a significant role in promoting nanotechnology as a subject that should be taught in K-12 schools. The National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, whose members include the leading nanotech universities in the U.S., offers resources for teachers interested in bringing nanotech into their classrooms.
Science teachers should feel obligated to do so, Lazaro Lopez, an associate superintendent of the school district that includes Wheeling High School, said on the district’s website.
“STEM education is critical to advancing our community and our nation, and as educators, it is our responsibility to ensure all students are aware of the opportunities and inspired to pursue careers in high-demand fields,” he said.