Recently I was asked to participate in a phone interview on nanotechnology with a high school computer science class in Camilla, Georgia. Their teacher, Vicki Davis, runs a popular blog at http://coolcatteacher.blogspot.com and tries to use the latest technologies such as VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) to reach out beyond her classroom walls to help students understand current topics.
Her class had spent a day and a half putting together a small nanotechnology Web site (http://westwood.wikispaces.com/Nanotechnology) and coming up with questions to ask me. The discussion was held using Skype and a webcam over the Internet. The podcast of this discussion can be heard at http://media.odeo.com/files/7/6/3/2928763.mp3 . (Unfortunately the video portion was not recorded, but it was very useful to me to see how the students reacted to my comments).
The session was eye opening for me in several respects. Their first question was about when items using nanotechnology might be available in stores. In my answer I mentioned the concept of a molecular fabricator and the possibility of producing products at home. Vicki announced that the class thought the molecular fabricator was just science fiction. This brought home to me that the general public is not aware of what researchers are working on and just how soon some of these advances may be available.
While Vicki had originally intended for the class to interview me, I decided to ask the students some questions of my own in order to learn what the younger generation thinks about nanotechnology. “What use of nanotechnology do you think will have the greatest impact on your life?” I asked. With possible answers in mind such as “Cure cancer,” or “Solve the energy crisis” I was brought down to earth when I received very practical responses. One student hoped nano would take care of chores such as doing the laundry, leaving her more time for other activities. Another student envisioned scrubbing nano-robots that would take care of between-meal tooth brushing. Yet, another student with vision challenges wondered what nanotechnology might do to help her see better in the future. I told her about current research that is working toward replacing light sensors in eyes and repairing nerve damage.
I then asked “What activities at a cellular level in nature have researchers used as models to develop targeted drug delivery.” One bright student suggested the idea of white blood cells targeting bacteria and viruses. I was pleased that the students understood how researchers are studying the way that our bodies target diseases as a clue for how to design targeted drug delivery.
Towards the end of the discussion Vicki made a comment about nanotechnology coverage in their textbooks. “I can honestly say that nanotechnology is literally not in our [chemistry, biology, physics or computer science] textbooks. We have very up to date textbooks. I guess that point really bothers me.”
I was intrigued by the fact that the term nanotechnology doesn’t appear in most high school textbooks, and so after the interview I asked a high school physics and chemistry teacher in my town in Washington State about his textbooks. He told me that, not only don’t the textbooks mention nanotechnology, but even if they did, the required curriculum does not leave time for additional material. How, I wondered, could we motivate students to study science and prepare students for science jobs of the future if their textbooks don’t discuss recent developments and current research directions?
I decided to pursue this further. My next step was to question Judith Lightfeather, President of The NanoTechnology Group, an organization focused on Nano Science Education. Judith referred me to comments she made in an interview in 2004 published on the Nanotechnology Now Web site, which still apply:
“The problems in the universities, regarding the lack of students interested in science reflects back to our main education issues in elementary schools. Until our government leaders realize that the Department of Education was created with no authority to mandate curriculum on a national level, but are permitted to mandate National Testing on the sub-standard curriculum which local schools boards make the decisions to accept, nothing will change.”
Political science classes don’t dwell on history to the exclusion of current affairs, I thought, so why do science classes exclude what’s being researched today? How can we prepare kids for careers in these fields if they come out of high school only aware of yesterday’s developments? Changing the science curriculum to include recent advancements and current research directions seems like a logical idea, however, given Judith Lightfeather’s comment, such a change must happen school board by school board, a daunting task at best.
I applaud Vicki Davis’s efforts to incorporate current thinking in her classroom. She is hoping that students from other schools will use the nanotechnology Web pages that her students put together and listen to the podcast. I hope that other teachers who can make time in their class schedule and master some simple-to-use technologies will consider calling in outside experts via the Internet as one way around current limitations of textbooks and curricula.
Vicki Davis posted a very interesting article providing additional encouragement for teachers to bring experts into their classrooms via Skype and for industry experts to use this convenient method to reach out to classrooms. Vicki's article The Future Wave of School Volunteerism: Be the Textbook is well worth reading.