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Without quick action, US nanotech-based companies may face challenges in sustaining a well qualified workforce equipped to continue the transformative innovations already under way. The directions and priorities that we choose for our education systems will impact not only every aspect of our children's lives, but will also determine the future strength and prosperity of our country.
March 17th, 2008
"The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now."
Just as our semiconductor industry's current and long-term viability is continually threatened by the lack of an available, skilled workforce, US nanotech-based companies may also face challenges in sustaining a well qualified workforce equipped to continue the transformative innovations already under way.
To compound the issue, foreigners are gaining on the United States in terms of education. Fewer Americans are training in science and technology and the foreigners who come to the US for their education are taking their education and going home for opportunities.
Because nanoscience is still considered nascent and it requires skills and knowledge that don't necessarily come with a traditional scientific education, there is no proven career roadmap. What is clear, however, is that it's essential for us to spark an early passion in our kids for science, math and engineering that will carry them through 12th grade, onto higher education and lifelong learning.
In order to build the best and brightest, and to insure that our human capital are as advanced and current as our technologies, it's essential to act now.
The multi-million dollar question is: How do we develop our nanotechnology workforce?
Education should be our highest public-policy priority. Education issues are complex and the effects of our decisions are far-reaching. Successful participation in tomorrow's global economy hinges on skills and literacies - a strong education foundation. The directions and priorities that we choose for our education systems will impact not only every aspect of our children's lives, but will also determine the future strength and prosperity of our country.
If kids can't learn what they cannot see, wisdom suggests the use of visuals to engage them. Science centers and museums are particularly engaging for students and can easily be incorporated into their schooling realm.
According to a report from the Education Resources Information Center on factors that influence elementary school children's attitudes toward science, after visiting the UK National Space Centre, approximately 20 percent of the 300 pupils showed an increased desire to become scientists. These children also showed a positive advantage over the other children with regard to science enthusiasm and space interest.
Cornell University has been a champion of influence to young children in science. In 2004, Cornell University's National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Nanobiotechnology Center (NBTC) in partnership with the Sciencenter, Ithaca's hands-on science museum and Painted Universe, developed 'It's a Nano World' - a traveling 3,000 square feet hands-on, interactive museum exhibition that introduced children and their families to the biological wonders of the world of nanotechnology.
Cornell University NanoScale Science and Technology Facility also created Nanooze, an online magazine designed to get kids excited about science and nanotechnology.
There are a host of other opportunities, including podcasts, cable TV news stories, and live presentation videos. A comprehensive list of resources for elementary kids, teens and parents can be found on the National Nanotechnology Initiative site.
Tweens and Teens
Today's youth are some of the toughest markets to reach. They're sophisticated media consumers and the most expensive and hard to consistently reach.
If kids in this age group (eight to 18) have not yet been exposed to science and technology as potential careers, they'll be much harder to reach. But it can be done.
According to the 2006 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, which gauges Americans' attitudes toward invention and innovation, teens have a relative lack of interest in science and technology-oriented fields. Teens view invention as a way to contribute to society and be creative, yet there has been a failure in presenting these fields as viable and attainable career options.
Fortunately, influences can be made - but they must be applicable to them. The University of Leeds published a discovery, part of the global study "Relevance of Science Education", that shows that tailoring lessons to each sex may help reverse the decline in interest. Where girls find interest in the human body, boys enjoy explosive chemicals - both easily incorporated into school curriculum.
Jumping on the ‘learning is fun' bandwagon, London-based PlayGen, in recognizing that traditional schooling doesn't always engage teens, developed an engaging interactive 3-D learning game based on nano-sciences and nanotechnology. The company utilizes familiar gaming formats that encourage comprehension and retention of new skills.
According to the National Science Foundation, our population of college graduates increased 40 percent in the decade between 1993 and 2003 and the number of college graduates who completed degrees in more than one broad field (S&E, S&E-related, and non-S&E) increased by 1.2 million over 1993.
It's not enough.
A survey conducted by the Institute of Nanotechnology in Stirling, U.K., revealed that employers prefer engineers with science knowledge over science students with knowledge of engineering concepts. Highly specialized researchers are in demand, and candidates with on-the-job experience are ranked higher than those without. Employers also gave high priority to knowledge of research-and-development management, project management, new-product innovation, technology strategy, and technology innovation.
US schools tend to teach science with strict divisions between disciplines and in an arbitrary sequence with little or no reference between them. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of nanotechnology, a unified approach that breaks the barriers between the disciplines is key to growing our future nanotechnologists.
The National Science Foundation has funded the National Center for Learning and Teaching Nanoscale Science and Engineering (NCLT) to develop leaders in nanoscience and engineering teaching and learning and to explore various ideas related to nanoscience. One of the primary goals of the NCLT is to explore how ideas in nanoscience and nanotechnology can be incorporated into the classroom.
Unfortunately, we don't have a clear path to becoming a nanotechnologist, but we do know that the kids who study physics and chemistry and computers today can be tomorrow's nanotech innovators.