Education, Public Awareness & Workforce Development

Kristin: 1. First a quick poll….. Is science relevant to everyday life? According to findings presented by Harold Stalford, 70% of students and 50% of parents in the USA think that K-12 math/science is irrelevant to everyday life.

2. Another poll….. Is an understanding of science important? According to Robert Giasolli, 76% of Americans say that Presidential candidates need to focus on science as a priority, but only 26% think that they themselves have a good understanding of science.

Science education is important to train the scientists and engineers for the future and to give people the power to make informed decisions. But how do we cross this gap in understanding and how do we engage the bored? The COMS2008 conference featured presentations (including one from me) covering education, public awareness and workforce development:

•    Educational tools luring interest with advanced technology – Robert Giasolli
•    Commercialization & Community – Kristin Alford –
•    Public Outreach that Works: Spreading the word about nanotechnology – Sue Neuen
•    Nanofun K-20 Education – Harold Stalford
•    Hands on Micro/Nano Learning Modules Using Programmable Lego Robotic van der Graff Generators & their Commercialization- Dean Aslam
•    Microfluidic Platform for Education & Research – Proyag Datta

This is a long post (reflecting my interest area I suppose), but stick with me. I would very much like to hear your feedback and about other initiatives in this area.


Making Nano Accessible and Fun

In a striking call to action, Sue Neuen got the audience singing ‘It’s a Small World (COMS2008 – Small World)’, based on a session they had run for younger children. In doing so, Sue demonstrated the first strategy for nano education – make it fun. And as Robert Giasolli said, don’t forget Clarke’s Third Law – you can also make it ‘magic’.

Sue said they’d asked children to count to 100 and explained that to get a billion you’d be counting for 95 years! They’ve also used the Dr Seuss book ‘Horton hears a Who’ as a resource.

Other resources mentioned were the hands-on exhibits in the NanoZone at UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science and Bugscope where students can send in bugs and then access the SEM images over the internet. Robert Giasolli also described the poster and virtual world that was being created called 21st Century World. The video for 21st Century world will be a great resource when it is released.

By the end of Sue’s talk, she was blowing ‘nanospheres’ (that’s bubbles to everyone else), but a good reminder of how nanotechnology and scale can be communicated with levity.

Harold Stalford is also using the principles of ‘fun’ in designing K-12 education programs. In this case, ‘fun’ evokes both understanding the simple FUNdamentals of science that explain nanotechnologies, but also looking for fun applications to hook students into enjoying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Using Nano as Hook for STEM

As noted in my introduction, Harold discovered that most students were bored or couldn’t see the relevance of maths and science. Therefore, they set some guiding principles for producing resources:
1.    Make it relevant to student life
2.    Use internet-based software so students can ‘virtually take apart’ nanotechnologies like they might have taken apart machines; and
3.    Concentrate on the fundamentals.

I later met Harold at Sandia National Laboratories where he is on secondment. He explained that they are seeking funding to deliver modules on electronics (like iPhones for example). Each module is based on the fundamentals but include on-line interactive activities and self-assessment tests to show ‘cool’ nanotechnologies in the students’ own language.

Robert Giasolli also launched the MANCEF educational kit at COMS2008. Their process was to identify the micro and nanotechnology needs of government, universities and corporates and then to generate a roadmap and seek out creative ways of conveying the value of micro and nanotechnologies. Their first unit is on Scale and contains 5 lessons including handouts, teacher guides, animations, videos and commercial products. The unit links back to teacher knowledge and ability but it strategically linked to approaches in the field. Elements include comparing nano to normal, measuring the microworld, asking whether nano size is a macro challenge and whether an atom really just space, and finally looking at a nano peace prize. The kit contains a DVD and teacher CD sells for $350. They will be expanding the kit and are currently looking for corporate sponsorship to supply kit materials or to provide teacher professional development for groups of schools.

I also talked about the education initiatives in Australia. The NanoBits kit is gaining interest in Australia and export markets (and several people I met were eager to place orders!). SHINE was discussed at COMS2007, but we updated everyone on its impact in Victoria and on Francesca Calati winning the Prime Minister’s Prize for Secondary School Teaching, in a large part due to this initiative. I also gave a preview of the new AccessNano national nanotechnology school resource we are launching in November. It is clear that AccessNano is a very comprehensive resource and people are very interested in our approach and materials.


In addition to educational resources, there were a couple of exciting tools that could be used in the classroom.

The first was a system of programmable Lego robotics presented by Dean Aslam. Dean explained how Lego could be used to explain some micro and nanotechnology concepts. He explained that to understand nanotechnology (or even pico-technology) we also need an understanding of time, mechanisms, electrodynamics, and chemical bonds. Nano-sized robotics has potential for drug delivery and diagnostics, using brain computer interfaces to control robotics and prostheses. The fundamental building block of all of these systems is the transistor switch. Dean has a system of Lego pieces that show how micro transistors can be manufactured. He recently gave a workshop to 80 teachers using a van der Graff generator made out of Lego with a bubble generator. These systems will be commercialised with the support of Wireless Integrated Microsystems in Michigan and will include static charge sensors, robotic wall climbers and van der Graff generators.

Another tool was the microfluidic platform presented by Proyag Datta at the Univeristy of Louisiana. This platform could be used to demonstrate microfluidic principles using dyes and other materials at a reasonable cost.

Industry Outreach for Education

The other important aspect to education that was raised is how industry and research institutions can support science and math eduction.

Sue mentioned Siemens USA – Generation 21 and recommended one of their publications – Siemens Pictures of the Future .

The other way scientists and engineers can play a role is to present at local or national science teachers associations. Sue has speaking at these events in the USA, much like a group of us in Australia have been doing. Sarah and I presented at STAVCON last year and Peter Binks from NanoVic, Matthew Dipnall from NanoBits, Brent Banham at Flinders University (plus a myriad of others I’m sure) have all presented at these conferences recently. And certainly in Australia, this has been backed up by specific nanotechnology presentations on SHINE from Amanda Clarke and Francesca Calati. And not just at conferences – classroom incursions or organisation excursions are also effective. One teacher said to Sue that ‘if the US needs 10,000 new technicians in the next 10-15 years, then we need a lot more of these seminars!’

Public Engagement

The final aspect of these presentations was public outreach. Sue mentioned some forums at the California Science Center and I later found out about forums at the Exploratorium too (includng one next Thursday 18th September).

I showcased a range of activities in Australia from arts/science collaborations, forums, dialogue, and Web2.0 media like blogging and podcasting. My slides show the range of activities being undertaken in Australia. It is clear from this conference that we are undertaking a wide range of activities appealing to a broad public audience. And not just information to make informed decisions, but also activities that provide emotional engagement.

So what’s going on in your neighbourhood? Let us know!


  1. […] The first part of my visit was spent at the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT).  The centre does a mixture of characterisation, synthesis and integration work and is set up with space to allow users to work at the centre. I also heard about the mechanisms and benefits of Sandia’s university alliances, the National Institute for Nano-Engineering (NINE) and managed to catch-up again with Harold Stalford. […]

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