The National Science Foundation sponsored a conference at its headquarters to highlight the ongoing nanotech research the agency is funding and all the projects discussed included some form of educational outreach.
The science involves processes at the nanometer scale and a nanometer is to an inch what an inch is to 400 miles.
The agency's interest in education is a positive sign, said Joan Redwing, a materials science and engineering professor at Pennsylvania State University currently overseeing a four-year, $1.4 million grant involving nanoscale wires with possible computer and electronics applications.
A grant proposal would not be chosen solely on the basis of how researchers approach education, but that category could easily tip the balance between two otherwise equal research projects, she told United Press International.
"They're looking for that educational component, they want to see there is some way a little bit different from standard undergraduate teaching, that 'something else' is going to be done," Redwing said. "(Researchers) can sometimes become too focused on their work, and need to be reminded a wide range of people could benefit from being involved in the program or just getting more information about it."
Even young children can benefit from learning about the amazing benefits nanoscience promises in almost every aspect of everyday life, Redwing said.
"There are a lot of very interesting things that have to do with nanotechnology that can get students excited and interested in careers in technology and science," Redwing said. "That's the way the research being done can contribute to education."
There also are practical reasons to increase the field's profile in the education world, said Mihail Roco, the NSF's chief nanotechnology adviser.
"In the near future, and perhaps much faster than people expected, this field will move into (areas such as) industry, agriculture and health care," Roco told UPI. "We need people to be involved and take advantage of the new technology."
The agency also is starting separate undergraduate and K-12 programs to get students into the nanotech pipeline, Roco said. Models for elementary and high school lessons should be ready by summer 2003, he said, and teachers already are working with the NSF to ensure the models will fit into existing curricula.
"At this moment, students learn only (the aspects) chemistry or mechanics and do not see the big picture," Roco said. "We look to eventually create a systemic change in education to start, when students learn something, to immediately explain the overall aspects."
One of nanotech's strengths is its interdisciplinary nature, Roco said. Chemical, mechanical and related phenomena cannot be isolated at the nano scale, so a wide range of scientists take part in each project, he said.
"We didn't have to push people to be interdisciplinary, since they realized they needed each other," Roco said. "We want to create a foundation in all disciplines to make it a connecting, horizontal approach."
This kind of research also will have benefits outside the lab, Redwing said.
"It's nice to have programs like this, where students can interact with people across disciplines, and see the importance of learning enough about other areas so that ... they can talk to chemists, physicists and engineers, and they're comfortable doing that," Redwing said. "That is going to become more and more important in the future."
Early nanotech efforts in Japan and Europe floundered because they defined the field too narrowly, Roco said. The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative's broader approach has been adopted worldwide, he said.
Nanotech's mingling of specialties already has produced concrete results -- undergraduates in Indiana are starting their own research journal based on their participation in NSF projects.
The agency should be able to increase its educational outreach, Roco said, thanks to legislation Congress recently passed to reauthorize the NSF and boost its funding. President Bush is expected to sign the bill into law in the next few days, Roco told UPI.