Tuesday, March 24, 2009

ACS annual meeting Nanoscience: Challenges for the Future

As I pack up to leave Salt Lake City and the 237th American Chemical Society meeting, I wanted to reflect on some of the comments about the future of nanotechnology and nanoeducation.

From the education sessions, it seems clear that K-12 teachers are taking bits and pieces of activities that have been developed through NNI funding. It has to "fit" into their curriculum and that means that it is only adapted if the teachers find it easy to use and it supports and augments the content they are required to teach. For example, 3 week modules on a topic on nanotechnology are unlikely to be used as designed and assessed. The school systems are not flexible enough to allow teachers to implement new curriculum and the testing schedules make it almost impossible for teachers to devote large chunks of time to new content.

The general consensus that I witnessed about undergraduate majors in nanotechnology was that they are too general and students would be better served by majoring on a core science or engineering and then doing nanoscience research in postgraduate studies. There was concern that the true interdisplinary strength of nanoscience research will be watered down if we don't have students with strong foundations in basic sciences. They need to approach nano-projects from different viewpoints. Nanotechnology minors might have more support. Especially if it encourages students to explore a series of courses where they get hands on exposure to some of the tools that are used in nanoscience research but may not be available to undergraduates.

Whitesides commented that nanotechnology as a field is maturing. We have passed beyond the hype and unreasonable expectations of the late 90's and have passed through the following disappointment stage of this decade and are now ready for steady growth - as long as we understand structure-property functions and create materials that have real applications.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

science fair blues

On Friday, I judged 14 chemistry projects at the Houston district science fair. This is a big deal. This was the 50th anniversary of Science and Engineering Fair of Houston. It is a big deal for a student to make it to the judging at the Houston convention center. Advancement to this division means that their project that was one of 30,000 projects entered in the preliminary school/district fair competitions that was chosen to be in this elite group of 1,300 projects from 140 schools. I remember when my daughter's science fair project progressed from from her class science fair, from her school, from her school's region to this large venue - a two day extravaganza.

However, as a judge for over a decade, I can honestly say that the science fair projects, at this level, have never been as dismal as it was on Friday. This was agreed upon by all of the judges in my group. Is it our No Child Left Behind Policy? Is it because the number of students in the Houston Independent School District (HISD) is decreasing while the population of Houston is growing? Are these new students choosing to attend schools outside of HISD? Because of our high stakes testing, I believe that teachers have less class time to devote to science fair projects.

What teachers need to understand is that science fair projects, the posters, and discussions about them, are real. This is really how scientists work. We have poster sessions at meetings where we show our data and defend our findings, seek advice and make connections. Science fair really matters.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

health care

This is outside my normal post, but I think that Health Care is important enough and personal enough to break through ideological constraints. Especially if I think I have something to contribute to the dialogue. Having been pregnant in Austin Texas and delivering a baby there (I drove myself to the hospital) and 2years later, having a baby in Stavanger Norway, I think that it is important that people understand what our idea of "free market" health care has wrought, at least in comparison to one of the most socialized systems in Europe. Our free market approach has created a market for competition in the the most exclusive realms of our health care system. It makes no sense from either an economic or sociological point of view. There are hospitals compteteing to the the most exclusive, up-to-date maternity wards for those few patients who have the luxury of a full American insurance plan.

Meanwhile, the rest of the country is suffering in ignorance and neglect. Strikingly,there are very few prenatal care options for women with out the type of insurance driven health care plan that I had. The average cost of a vaginal delivery in the US is $7,737 (http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/623715/estimating_the_cost_of_pregnancy_.html?cat=52) That does not include prenatal care. This make complete economical insanity because the costs for prenatal care are so much less than the costs for post natal issues (resulting from poor prenatal care).

Having a baby in the US is expensive. I was lucky because although I was in graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, at a time where they decided to deny all graduate students health care benefits (something to do with having equal benefits with the other UT schools), my husband worked for a larger international company with excellent health care offerings. I was very fortunate because my pregnancy was not normal and involved a lot of extra testing due to issues with my blood, my chemical and x-ray exposures (I was a CHE grad student), and the baby's weight)

Luckily, my first child was completely normal - born on her due date with perfect APGAR scores. And under the American health care system and my husband's international corporations' generous health care insurance, I was in a sleek hospital in a private room with a jacuzzi tub (cant imagine a women in labor using that) but was sent home w/in 24 hours of delivery. Not a lot of care.

In Norway, all of my prenatal care was free. A surprise to me was the lack of paper work> Are you pregnant? was the question, and a simple "yes" entitled you to the best prenatel care in the world (in my opinion). No paperwork, no forms.

My second child was a week late and I was in labor for 2 days. But we still thought it would be easy. IT wasn't. After an emergency C-section, I was in the hospital for 7 days (I could have stayed for 10 but wanted to get home for xmas). During those 7 days, I saw women being taught how to breast feed, how to care for their children, why it was important to vaccinate their children, what the vaccination schedule was, and all kinds of information that the US system hopes is picked up by homes, churches or other groups. Postpartum care was excellen with nurses coming to homes or local well baby checkup centers to ensure that ALL children were vaccinated.

This is important: After seven days of very high tech, personal care, I was told that I could go home. My question was what paperwork to I have to fill out? The answer was none. Just dress your baby and go home. The USA is so overwhelmed with bureaucracy when it comes to health care, we don't know has simple it can be.
Most new moms in Norway are in the hospital for 7 days in a ward room. In someways I was lucky. I had a private room. This had nothing to do with my ability to afford it but rather the complications involving my sons' birth.

My prenatal and postnatal care was better in Norway than in the US under any metric (cost, time, quality - any). So when people say the US has the best health care in the world, I have to wonder about what world they have been living in.

Medical procedures should be based on need not what you can afford. If you have a sick child, you will want the best possible health care. It is like paying for firemen when your house is burning down. Shouldn't we have a health care system that is better than that?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

How to learn to teach nanotechnology in 3 days

There are quite a few 1-3 day teacher workshops on nanotechnology offered around the world. Do they work? Can a middle school or high school teacher learn about these new advances in research AND learn how to effectively integrate it into their classrooms in such a short time? Most teachers who take nanotechnology workshops come away excited about the new applications that they have learned about - quantum dots are beautiful, gold nanoshells have tremendous potential, buckyballs are fun,and who wouldn't be excited about the idea of cheap and easy methods to clean up oil spills or purify contaminated water. However, how much of this content really gets back to the students?

Nanoscience topics are based on quantum mechanics and are challenging to everyone, especially for teachers that may have had excellent scientific training but have been out of college and the research environment for years/decades or for teachers that may have not have strong science backgrounds when they entered teaching. In 3 days, can we teach teachers about how gold nanoshells work via plasmon resonance, how scanning tunneling microscopes (STM) work via electron tunneling, how different chiral structures in nanotubes lead to different properties (metal or semiconductors), or how how the fluorescence of quantum dots is determined by it size because quantum confinement? In 3 days can teachers learn enough about any nanoscience topic to feel confident enough to teach it to their classes? In 3 days, can teachers take this newly acquired knowledge and tailor it to meet the needs of their students, align the requirements of the testing bodies, and are within the limited budgets of their science labs?

There are lots of articles, infomercials, products that claim to help people learn things fast: to read, to paint, to play piano, to manage effectively, to lose weight, to get abs of steel, learn latin. However, the real secret, and it is no secret, is time and practice. How long does it take to learn to be a surgeon, or a concert pianist, or an effective teacher, or great computer programmer?

Peter Norvig, the Director of Research at Google, has the "the best job in the world at the best company in the world" and some interesting essays on line, including Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years http://norvig.com/21-days.html. In this article, he discusses how long it takes to really master a subject. He reiterates that people learn by doing, that people learn things over time, that we are always in such a rush to learn or teach something that we don't really accomplish our goals.

I run a teacher internship program and a full semester course CHEM 570 Nanotechnology for Teachers. I don't want to train teachers to be come nanoscience researchers. It takes a minimum of 10 years+ to become a research scientist (4 years undergrad, 4-6 years in graduate school, and then postdoctoral research). It probably takes even longer become an effective high school teacher (and a lot of patience, management skills and emotional maturity). However, if we are going to spend taxpayer money on nanoscience training, I do want to make it effective. I want teachers to learn about new developments in physical science, bring these applications back to their classrooms and translate these findings into lessons where kids have real learning experiences that will help them learn scientific content, motivate them to study/do homework/pay attention in class(this is one of the real issues with American students), perhaps think about careers in science and engineering, and to become adults who are scientifically literate.

It is my belief that we need to rethink these short courses and workshops for teachers in nanotechnology. We need to slow down and engage teachers over an extended period. We need a long term commitment to teaching advanced scientific content and helping teachers use it in their classrooms. Isolated workshops may be engaging and beneficial but it is too separated from the teacher's curriculum. Just in time teaching, ie. teaching the content to the teachers, when they are teaching the subjects in their classes and making it relevant to their teaching goals, will make these programs more effective.