Meet a Scientist

Teaching and Learning Nanotechnology: NCLT’s Dr. Chang Discusses the Challenges and Progress


Dr. Robert Chang, professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University, directs the National Center for Learning and Teaching in Nanoscale Science and Engineering (NCLT). It’s the first national center for learning and teaching of nanoscale science and engineering education in the United States.

Based at Northwestern University, the NCLT is a multi-institution partnership of that university, Purdue University, the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and other institutions.

In this interview with the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, Dr. Chang explains the goals and challenges facing education in the field of nanotechnology.

Why, in your view, is the National Center for Learning and Teaching (NCLT) in Nanoscale Science and Engineering needed?

The NCLT serves as an anchor for launching a broad-based integration of nanoscale science and engineering (NSE) concepts into U.S. classrooms for grade levels 7-16.

The U.S. needs to train a nanotechnology-literate national workforce if we are to remain globally competitive in years to come. At the same time, we have to continuously improve the quality of our national STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to prepare future generations to develop and adopt new technologies beyond nanotechnology! Our Center addresses these needs through content and learning-tool development, teacher professional development, and learning research.

By linking nanoscale phenomena to a variety of applications, we can help students of all ages understand how nanotechnology concepts are relevant to their everyday lives. This relevance has the added benefit of getting them more excited about learning science and math. And because NSE integrates many disciplines (chemistry, physics, biology, engineering, etc.), it can also help build strong interdisciplinary science literacy.

What are your short-term and long-term goals?

Our deliverables over the next few years include

  • A Global NanoEd Portal, which will serve as a central hub for the nanotechnology education community to disseminate information, exchange best practices, and archive resources, such as learning and teaching materials, lectures, video, and research documents.
  • Nanoscale science and engineering curricula for pre-college and college levels. Curricula will use an approach called “inquiry-and-design” that lets students perform the work of scientists (i.e., understand a research question through inquiry) and engineers (i.e., design and redesign a functional product or process) in their classrooms.
  • A professional development model for science and math teachers. The NCLT will use its Center network to facilitate its adoption nationwide.

We also plan to build national capacity in nanotechnology education by helping to establish

  • Minority-institution-led, nanotechnology initiatives in their locales.
  • Regional NSE Centers that are supported by Federal, State and Local governments and work directly with local school districts to integrate NSE into STEM curricula.

(See National Center for Learning and Teaching and NanoEd Resource Portal for more information about nanotechnology and education.)

Are there ways to measure success?

Yes, we perform formative assessment and evaluation on all of our activities, and we also have independent external evaluation teams to review our work.

One important challenge has been the current lack of learning standards relating to nanoscale science. One role of our Center is to help link new nanoscience concepts to existing math and science standards and to suggest new standards where necessary.

Certainly, one key measure of success of our classroom content is the reception by teachers and students around the country. They are helping us evaluate how well our materials are enabling them to think differently about the nanoscale and revise their approach to STEM.

Is nanotechnology being taught widely in K-12 classrooms today?

No, nanoscale science is not being widely taught yet. First and foremost because no comprehensive body of instructional materials yet exists. The NCLT is working hard to remedy this situation. In the short run, we are providing nanotechnology concept modules for immediate field testing by teachers in the classrooms and, over time, these concept modules will be expanded into full-length courses and curricula.

At the same time, teachers must become nanotechnology-literate and receive training on how to integrate nanotechnology concepts into their existing math and science curricula. We are offering them professional development as well as opportunities to help develop the content they will be using in their classrooms.

What strategies are you or others using to increase nanotechnology-related classroom instruction? 

We develop nanotechnology concepts for teachers and students to use. These concepts are developed for the various levels of our clients and are designed to meet the national science and engineering standards. They enhance STEM education because they are designed to link easily to existing science and math courses. 

What are some of the challenges that face educators who want to encourage an interest in nanotechnology?

The educators need to learn nanoscience.  They need to work with researchers outside of their field. They also need to find ways to fit new nanotechnology topics into curricula that are already crowded.

If you were to meet a high school student who is passionate about science, what would you tell them about nanotechnology, specifically, the future of the science and job prospects in it?

Nanoscience discusses phenomena at the 1-100nm scale. At this scale, traditional boundaries between biology, chemistry, and physics are not very distinguishable. Yet, nanotechnology concepts play important roles in all of these disciplines at the macroscopic scale.  Nanotechnology of the future will encompass all these disciplinary areas and understanding basic nanotechnology concepts will help students understand all sciences.

Some of the “big ideas” we teach include

  • Dominant forces in the nanoworld are different from those in the macro world.
  • The scale of matter influences its nature and properties.
  • Materials and phenomena in the nanoscale may or may not behave the same way as in the macroscale.
  • The unique properties of nanomaterials can be used to advance technology and improve quality of life.
  • New concepts can be derived from interdisciplinarity and complexity at the nanoscale level.
  • Geometry can have an impact on nanomaterial design and applications.

The future of the science is bright and the job prospects are very promising! The world needs about 2 million nanotechnology-literate workers to supply an anticipated global nanotechnology market of $1 trillion over the next 10 years.

What specific courses would you encourage them to take in high school and college?

I would suggest taking basic science and math courses and lots of lab courses. Labs are important because they give students opportunities to transform abstract concepts into applied knowledge. Applied knowledge helps students feel more confident in their scientific abilities.

Do you advocate degree programs in nanotechnology, or do you prefer a more generalized approach?

I believe in a two-pronged approach.

Degree programs in nanotechnology can provide focused training for highly skilled technicians, at community colleges, for example. Our Center is developing programs such as these to meet workforce development needs in this area.

However, in time, nanotechnology concepts will be taught in all science and math courses. Of course, our Center is working hard to facilitate this integration. So at higher levels, having a strong generalized background in these areas will equip students to do nanoscience and to tackle new frontier topics as well.

What are the biggest challenges in the area of nanotechnology-related education today?

At the pre-college level, teachers need better science and math training early in their careers and greater access to continuous high-quality professional development. At higher education levels, the main challenge is to break down the barriers that exist among traditional disciplines to offer students a more integrated view of the world.

In general, we need to bridge the gap that exists between the research lab and the classroom so that students of all ages have access to the latest science and technology.  One of the ways our Center does this is to invite secondary school teachers to perform research at university labs and contribute to our content development. The unique composition of our Center also helps to bridge these gaps—NCLT is a diverse community of nanotechnology researchers, learning scientists, students and educators.

How does the U.S. compare to other countries in terms of educating the public, generally, and students, specifically, about nanotechnology?

The U.S. is working on informal (non-classroom) education, and we should do a good job. Compared to some Asian and European countries, our science and math achievement levels in the classroom are not as high.  Taiwan is doing a very good job teaching nanotechnology to its population.

Although the NCLT is a national center aiming to reach students and teachers across this country, we also provide a necessary platform for international cooperation in the area of nanotechnology and STEM education. In this capacity, we are able to learn best practices from other parts of the world and support cooperation with international partners who share our interests and priorities.

Speaking to the potential promises of nanotechnology, what are you most excited about?

Above all, I believe that nanotechnology will help solve the most challenging global issues that we face in the areas of energy, health, environment, and global security.  People need to learn more about how science at the nanoscale can benefit us in our everyday lives. Nanotechnology literacy and public engagement can answer the questions citizens might have and pave the way for public acceptance and ensure responsible development of new nanotechnologies.

What sparked your interest in science? When did you know that you wanted to make it your life’s work?

Curiosity—my desire to understand and design something is what started it all.

Robert P.H. Chang, Professor, Department of Materials Science & Engineering, Northwestern University

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