A suburban Chicago high school tinkers with nanotechnology, an area of science that translates
into future jobs.
When Ashley Sicard, 17, first saw the microscopes in Wheeling High School's new laboratory—devices so powerful they are capable of measuring the distance between atoms—she was worried she might break them.
"I looked around at all the different high-tech microscopes that we had and I was like, ‘Wow, these look like something I would never want to mess with,' " she says. "And then people kept saying, ‘It looks so cool.' It made me realize I was lucky to take this class, because the stuff we get to do on these scopes is amazing."
"Some of that "stuff" involves inspecting cells, bees' wings, spiderwebs, and the tiny indentations on a CD that mark where the information is stored. But the standout for Ashley is what she found when she compared hair samples. "We analyzed the differences between hair from a weave and natural hair, and it's crazy, because you can see all the nutrients in the natural hair, but the weave looks like a wooden rod," she says. "They proclaim that the weave is human hair, but wouldn't human hair have the nutrients of regular human hair?
"The teachers at the suburban Chicago school are equally excited. "It feels like Christmas," says science teacher Carol Bouvier, a 25-year veteran. "The students are aware this is cutting-edge equipment. We have a lot of interest in science. My goal is to get these students to love and appreciate science and overcome any kind of fear. They may not major in it in college, but they will appreciate it." Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was impressed. "I thought I had a great high school experience," he said on a recent visit to the school to tour the lab. "I had nothing like this."
Of course, very few high school or even college students can say they are in regular contact with instruments like those in the Wheeling lab, which include two atomic-force microscopes, two scanning tunneling microscopes, and two scanning electron microscopes. The equipment makes it possible for Wheeling students to explore a frontier of science-the ability to see and control individual atoms and molecules, or nanotechnology-which has a wide range of applications encompassing health care, clean water, and energy, as well as clothing, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical products.
One important implication of all this is jobs. According to state officials in Illinois, by 2015, the market for nanotechnology products will be worth more than $26 billion, requiring 2 million workers and approximately 6 million supporting positions. And Illinois will apparently be in the thick of it. "We've identified just over 65 or 70 [Illinois companies] performing nanotechnology work," says Mark Harris, president and CEO of the Illinois Science & Technology Coalition (ISTC). "That puts us in the top 10 in the nation."
Connecting to Nano
It was figures like those that led former Wheeling principal Lazaro Lopez to pursue the idea of adding the study of nano and nanotechnology to the panoply of science topics taught at Wheeling-and the more daunting task of getting actual nano equipment for the students to use. The idea dovetailed with the effort the school has been making since 2007 to become more relevant to a student population that has become increasingly diverse (the school is 51 percent Hispanic) and lower income (43 percent receive free or reduced lunch).
Lopez, who is now associate superintendent for teaching and learning at Township High School District 214, of which Wheeling is a part, says he and his staff had made the decision not to talk to students "about what they need to do to graduate." Instead, he says, "we wanted to talk to them about what they want to do with their lives. And then wrap the experience of high school around that interest or passion.
"Besides reorienting Wheeling as a comprehensive high school with a STEM focus, administrators also began developing "pathways," beginning with health careers and manufacturing. The purpose of the pathways is to give students a taste of real-world careers they might not encounter at home.
"In communities like Wheeling, where there's high poverty, students likely do not have somebody within their circle who is working at a research institution, or at a hospital, or in an engineering facility," says Lopez. "It really is about bringing the outside world in."
The aim is to help kids take a first step into that world before they leave high school. "My goal isn't necessarily for them to figure out the exact job they're going to do, but for them to at least have a good idea before they walk across that stage at graduation of what they want their next step to be," Lopez says.
After health and manufacturing, Lopez became interested in a research and development option focusing on nanotechnology that he felt could connect science with other subjects and with many other professions via research. "I want everybody to have a connection, to be engaged with STEM," Lopez says. "And so I thought it would be phenomenal if we could re-envision our science curriculum to integrate nano, nanoscale, and nano concepts.
"Wheeling's efforts culminated in two Nano Connect Day conferences. "Every student was part of Nano Connect through science class last year," says Nancy Heintz, math and science division head. "Our physics preparatory students presented about different types of products that were using nanotechnology. Our general physics students presented on phenomena associated with nanotechnology. And our honors physics students did research and presented that."
Meanwhile, Lopez pursued getting the equipment, visiting trade shows, working contacts, and even speaking at state gatherings. His efforts converged with those of Illinois state officials, who had also been working to promote ways in which STEM education could prepare potential employees for future jobs.
The State of STEM
With a $10.3 million investment made up of both public and private funding, including federal Race to the Top dollars, Illinois governor Pat Quinn established a series of "learning exchanges" in 2012 to support STEM education in various fields, including health sciences, IT, agriculture, finance, and research and development, with each exchange managed by a specific entity.
By 2015, the market for nanotechnology products will be worth more than $26 billion, requiring 2 million workers.
The Illinois Science and Technology Institute, part of ISTC, was selected to administer the state's R&D STEM Learning Exchange, which launched in the 2013-14 school year with 15 pilot high schools, including Wheeling. Lopez's proposal to build a nano lab at Wheeling received a $250,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which is being administered by ISTI under the R&D exchange. Lopez then obtained a matching grant of $150,000 from the district board. This provided enough to purchase the equipment. Additional funds for renovating the room in which the lab is located came from district facility improvement funds, Lopez says.
At Wheeling, teachers say the goal is to get as wide a range of students as possible to use the lab. "We have a lot of students who are more on the average track," says teacher Carol Bouvier. "They may not go into engineering or get a Ph.D. But we're hoping that they get over their fear of learning new things, running new equipment. And they could be technicians. They could run microscopes in a lab as a job."
Designed with a window onto the hallway to pique the curiosity of student passersby, the lab has also garnered interest from outside the school walls. Among the callers: Chicago Botanic Garden, Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Illinois, the University of Michigan, and an Iowa State University professor interested in doing research on properties of concrete.
Plus, teachers are stunned at the level of student interest. "I knew they would be excited. But I didn't expect them to be this excited," says AP environmental science and physics teacher Lisa del Muro. "What a blessing for a teacher that we get to walk into this classroom every day and the kids are ready to go."
Meanwhile, Ashley Sicard, who is already certified as a nursing assistant, is seeing nano in her future. "Nursing assistant is not my final destination," she says. "It's just a first step. I want to eventually be a neonatal respiratory doctor. You could definitely use nanotechnology to really go inside and see maybe the lining of a baby's urethra or esophagus. All these different things."