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 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.

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