Nanoscience Opening the Minds of Tomorrow

We’ve all been told that good things come in small packages. Read about how small things are being used to spur students on to new levels of knowledge and wonder in this article by Sarah d. Sparks:

As schools look for ways to implement the Next Generation Science Standards, some scientists and educators argue that schools should start small—really, really small.

The topic they have in mind is nanoscience, the study of particles in the range of a billionth of a meter. To put that in perspective, one strand of human DNA is a little more than 2.5 nanometers, and there are about 1 million nanometers in the period at the end of this sentence.

Nanoscience is a rapidly expanding part of fields from medicine to high-tech manufacturing. Federal and industry experts at a National Science Foundation meeting last month believe it could provide a path to break down some of the silos separating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics classes and link their concepts to future careers for students.

“We focus a lot on the pure sciences, the sizes and scales and models and simulations, but [students’] eyes really get wide and they really get excited when they see gold turn red at the nano scale, or you take them to the lab and they see carbon nano-fibers being spun,” said Daphne Schmidt, the coordinator of professional development at the MathScience Innovation Center in Richmond, Va., one of 40 federally supported Challenger Learning Centers intended to provide STEM-related professional development and informal science learning.

“This is really about expanding the scale of understanding,” she added. “It’s not new; it’s just a more holistic way of teaching science.”

Leading the Way

Among states, Virginia is at the leading edge of the effort to promote nanoscience education. In its 2010 science-standards revision, the state added recommendations for ways to use nanoscience applications in existing topics. For example, as part of physics, the revised standards suggest students learn to understand how high-powered equipment such as atomic force microscopes and scanning tunneling microscopes are used to determine nanoscale properties and forces.

“We have to institutionalize nanoscience and technology into the curriculum for all K-12 students throughout the United States,” said James G. Batterson, a retired aerospace engineer with NASA and a former teacher in the Newport News, Va., school district who consulted on Virginia’s new science standards. “We’ve seen what happens if you don’t institutionalize it. The wealthy schools and parents make sure their students get it, and the students in poor schools don’t.”

Yet in most states, nanoscience is not an explicit part of the curriculum. The Next-Generation Science Standards, which have been adopted by 26 states, don’t use the words “nanoscale” or “nanoscience,” but the field offers a way to organize and approach many existing topics, like properties of atoms or exponential notation, said Patricia Simmons, a past president of the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Teachers Association, at the NSF meeting.

Integrating STEM

For example, Jonathan Home, the leader of the Trapped Ion Quantum Information Group, a team at the Institute for Quantum Electronics in Zurich that is building a computer tinier than an atom, suggested that high school math teachers could use nanotechnology to give a new “spin” to teaching matrix problems—those with sets of numbers—in algebra. Electrons’ spin has both magnitude and direction, and problems using them might be calculated using two-by-two matrices, said Mr. Home, who was not at the meeting. “I think students at most schools can multiply two-by-two matrices—at least we did at school—so they would also see the relevance of matrices to the real world.”

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