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Foothill, Gunn offer nano instruction — and government plans to fund more

Two years ago professor Kathryn Moler worked with other Stanford University scientists to consider whether nanotechnology should get its own department.

It shouldn't, they concluded.

Biologists, chemists and physicists use nanotechnology, but the practice of using small quantities itself is not a scientific field, said Moler, who is the director of the Center for Probing the Nanoscale.

Students need base training in a core field first, she and others decided.

But it's exciting so many are embracing the science of the teeny-weeny — and she hopes it continues to grow, she said this month.

Moler is not alone. Nanotechnology researchers, policy groups and the U.S. government all agree increasing educational focus in the area is important.

A government umbrella group created in 2001 to coordinate federal funding, the National Nanotechnology Initiative, listed the education and creation of a workforce fluent in all things nano as a top goal.

The initiative will get $1.5 billion in 2009 to disburse to member groups. That includes the National Science Foundation, which supports Moler's center and 14 others like it throughout the U.S.

Yet more must be done, according to a study conducted by Menlo Park-based research firm SRI International.

The 2007 study agreed with Moler's premise that nanotechnology is a way to enrich — not supplant — core training.

Students should apply their base knowledge of a given field to specific nano-projects that mirror real-world industry, the report stated.

One of the authors was Robert Cormia, a professor at Foothill College, which launched a nanotechnology program in 2004.

Along with beginner and advanced classes, the program also offers internships at SRI and the NASA-Ames research center at Moffett Field outside of Mountain View.

Pete Garcia, chief financial officer at Nanosys, said he took the beginner's course to help him understand the science behind the budgets he was balancing.

About 80 percent of students have a bachelor's or master's degree and are looking to build on careers, Cormia said.

He and students have also worked to build an online wiki-book, he said, accessible at http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/ .

A curriculum developed by SRI for high school teachers, NanoSense, was piloted earlier this month at Gunn High School.

Students tested the power of nanoscale zinc oxide in sunblock to block ultraviolet rays, science teacher Geri Horsma said.

SRI funded the curriculum with a grant from the National Science Foundation, which also paid for the professor who to helped develop the lessons and teach them at Gunn.

The experiment was easy to weave into other topics, such as the biology of a sunburn, and students loved the unit, Horsma said.

They asked lots of questions and the 60-minute period ended too quickly, she said.

"They're enchanted."

The NanoSense curriculum is available online at www.nanosense.org/.

— Arden Pennell

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