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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > FEI > Supporting Science and Technology Education: A Crucial Multi-Front Effort

Dan Zenka
FEI Company

FEI Company, a world leader in the creation and implementation of nanotechnology, is helping to advance science and technology programs in the United States by donating one of their Phenom microscope's to Central High School in Philadelphia. Company and governmental efforts like FEI's can help the United States remain globally competitive in science and technology by fostering early science/technology interest in children and young adults.

November 20th, 2007

Supporting Science and Technology Education: A Crucial Multi-Front Effort

With rapidly decreasing numbers of U.S. and western European high school graduates choosing science and technology as fields of study, and the technology economies of China, India and other countries growing, it is no overestimate to say that we will soon be facing a critical shortage of qualified technical talent. While the United States and Europe continue to invest in nanotechnology infrastructure and development, the question remains: who will fill this new technology house being built?

Statistics indicate that the United States is facing serious problems in getting students interested in and excited about science and technology. For example, 32 percent of all science doctorate degrees and 55 percent of all engineering doctorates in the United States are awarded to students from foreign countries. These statistics demonstrate strong indicators that American students are rapidly losing interest in science and technology -- a foreshadowing for potentially considerably less U.S. competitiveness in scientific developments and new technologies.

No Effort Too Small: Companies and institutions need to support government initiatives however they can

Recognizing this current and future challenge House Bill 2436, the Nanotech into the schools initiative, is one proposed U.S. legislative solution. Bob Gregg, executive vice president at FEI, has worked closely with Congresswoman Darlene Hooley of Oregon, the initiative's primary sponsor. In mid-October, the initiative received a positive hearing on the House floor at the House Committee on Science and Technology.

The initiative also has the backing of Washington Congressman Brian Baird, who is a strong proponent of science and technology education, according to Gregg. Many politicians are aware of the importance of this initiative, and FEI's role has been to provide as much information and insight as possible.

The idea behind the initiative is to have the U.S. government match the funds of colleges, universities, community colleges and even high schools, so these intuitions can purchase qualified nanotechnology tools specified as part of the initiative. FEI's new Phenom fits all of the requirements as a qualified nanotechnology tool, since the purchase price is under USD $100,000 and the manufacturer is a US-based company.

Inspiring Students at an Early Age

The initiative is likely to have a positive viral effect in the US school system. Gregg explains, "The U.S. has significant competition among educational institutions. If one university launches an undergraduate nanotechnology program, others want to equal the playing field."

The U.S. has vast potential for advanced science and nanotechnology programs not only at the college or university level but also at high school and middle school level to reach children ages eight to 18.

At a recent FEI Phenom microscope introduction event at Portland State University in Oregon, a 12-year- old boy from the audience was invited to use the Phenom. Within two minutes he was deeply immersed in the technology, making images and declaring the Phenom just as exciting as his video games at home. This example illustrates what the U.S. needs - to grab the attention and interest of children at a young age by showing that science and technology can be fun and exciting.

FEI's Phenom can change how science is taught and capture the imagination of today's visually-driven students.

"The Phenom brings to life aspects of science and technology that have traditionally been somewhat abstract in classroom instruction," says Skip Rung of the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnolgies Institute (ONAMI). "This table-top scanning electron microscope makes it possible to teach the scientific investigative techniques and inquiry skills that have traditionally been taught at the advanced university level."

Bringing Nanoscale and Innner Space Exploration to Philadelphia's Central High School

On November 19, Philadelphia's Central High School was the first high school in the United States to receive an FEI Phenom microscope. The school's Minority Student Training Program will use the Phenom microscope to teach a group of 15 to 20 students accepted into the program from all ethnic groups, as well as for standard science courses at Central High. Betty Thompkins, a microscopist at Albert Einstein Medical Center's pathology department, founded the Minority Student Training Program for talented at-risk students nearly 10 years ago.

Philadelphia students look at new desktop scanning electron microscope- a gift from FEI Company

Last December, the Minority Student Training Program suffered a devastating setback when a facility flood destroyed the program's aging scanning and transmission electron microscope. With FEI's gift of a new Phenom tabletop SEM and NASA's new Virtual Microscopy teaching modality for public schools, the program can continue.

Captain Alan Bean, Apollo 12 lunar module pilot and the fourth man in history to set foot on the moon, addressed the Central High students as keynote speaker at the Phenom dedication ceremony. During the event Captain Bean commented that today's students face endless possibilities with outer and inner space or nanoscale exploration. "Unique programs like these at Central High and innovative tools like the Phenom can capture the imagination of students and inspire them to pursue advanced studies in science and technology, helping to ensure that the United States has the technical talent needed to remain competitive in the future," Bean said at the dedication.

Astronaut Alan Bean, Minority Student Training Program Founder Betty Thompkins, FEI VP Steven Berger

While the Phenom donation to Central High may be one small step for advancing science and technology education in the United States, it is a giant leap for influencing this school's students into a science and technology career path. Moreover, it is an important example of how companies can help advance U.S. science and technology competitiveness. With enough single efforts, our industry can build awareness for the importance of advancing science and technology programs in the United States to remain globally competitive, and, more important, find the next advances that will change—for the positive—how we live.

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