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March 29th, 2009

Nanotechnology Slips Into Schools

Each day in class, it's the job of John Balet to bring nanotechnology into plain view. He and his students discuss applying nanotechnology to produce better computer chips, more-protective car wax, and less-visible sunscreen. They talk about its potential to transform solar power, and possibly cure cancer, as well as the ethical and safety concerns surrounding the science.

Mr. Balet, who teaches at Ballston Spa High School outside Albany, N.Y., is one of a handful of teachers around the country who have fashioned curriculum and lessons around nanotechnology, one of the fastest-emerging areas of scientific research. Some schools are crafting lessons with help from local universities and companies that work in nanoscience. That's the case at Ballston Spa High, located in an area of eastern New York known as Tech Valley, home to many technology firms and top-flight research institutions.

Mr. Balet also has his students research the uses of nanotechnology in various products. For example, a company might assert that its products, at the nano level, seep into the surface of a car's exterior at the molecular level, forging a stronger sealant. When businesses make such claims about their use of nanotech, "are they giving consumers the full story?" Mr. Balet asks students.

In addition to building students' science skills, nanotechnology studies are making the young men and women more appealing to employers, argues Superintendent Dragone. He said employers have told him that high school students with nanotechnology backgrounds who go on to receive two years of technical training can find entry-level jobs as technicians making between $50,000 and $70,000 a year.

Some of the implications surrounding nanotechnology lessons are ethical, not economic. Scientists and consumer advocates warn that engineering stronger, lighter, and more powerful products at the molecular level could pose risks to human health and the environment that are not yet understood.


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