We are in our 2nd week of the X-factor style student engagement event I’m an Engineer, Get Me Out of Here!, and it is going GREAT! Live chatting with students in the UK in the mornings, answering both superb and outlandish questions in the afternoons = one of the most intense and rewarding communications outreach projects I have ever participated in! Today, I feature some of my favorite questions asked by students so far. Enjoy!
Hi ellisk!!! Now THIS is my type of question!!!
This is actually not as simple of an answer as it might seem. Many scientists think of engaging young students in science and engineering simply as providing students with more interesting and educational information on what the field(s) involve and why they make good careers.
I personally believe in going a step beyond that. Sure, educating students on ‘What is engineering’ is awesome and much needed. But active scientists and engineers should not view education as the final goal, but instead should try to achieve DIALOGUE with students. That is why I love ’I’m an Engineer, Get me Out of Here!’ – this project gets scientists, engineers, and students talking together, back and forth with equal give and take! I believe that engaging people with science through dialogue should be the new standard for science and engineering outreach.
Going even further, dialogue should work 2 WAYS – not just scientists answering students’ questions, but scientists and engineers asking the STUDENTS questions!! Scientists and engineers could gain great insight and creative solutions by asking students what they think about the scientific projects the scientists and engineers are working on. Students often come up with inspiring and insightful feedback for scientific projects that can make these projects go further in creating products that the public can actually use and benefit from. We need to be asking the public and young students what THEY want out of science and engineering! What problems do they see with their world that they think science and engineering fields should be working to solve?
A great example of a scientific project that is reaching out to the public in large numbers is Catalytic Clothing, an ‘environmental clothing’ initiative started by an artist & scientist team that seeks to purify the air and help large cities reach pollutant emission standards by treating our clothing with ‘self-cleaning’ nanoparticles. This project went out into the streets to ask members of the public, especially high-school students, what they thought of the technology and how the technology could be improved and marketed to the wider public. Watch a video about this scientific project below:
The biggest thing to understand is this: currently active scientists and engineers DO NOT KNOW EVERYTHING! Young students are so very valuable in bringing ‘new blood’ and new life into science and engineering. We should acknowledge that young students have great and innovative ideas BEFORE they ever enter a formal education or a college degree.
We need to LISTEN to our young students!!!
“Simply trying to educate the public about specific science-based issues is not working. We need to move beyond what too often has been seen as a paternalistic stance. We need to engage the public in a more open and honest bidirectional dialogue about science and technology.” – AAAS Chief Execture Officer Alan Leshner, Science 2003
This is my new favorite question!
Yes, there are worries that nanotechnologies can damage the environment, or have side effects on our health that we don’t know about. I certainly wouldn’t go drink a solution of nanoparticles (although some people do – the ‘Blue Man’ drinks silver nanoparticles… and his skin has turned blue!).
There are nanoparticles in the air all around us that we breathe in all the time. Some are good or fine for us, some are not so good (there are nanoparticles in ‘smog’ than can cause respiratory problems). So if nanoparticles are all around us, why are we so worried about the risks of nanotechnology?
The best thing that researchers can do is to test the effects of new nanoparticles that they make on human health and the environment. Gold nanoparticles are actually injected into people to find and treat diseases, so we might not be worried about these types of nanoparticles… but other types may have damaging effects on the environment when they accumulate in waste areas.
The worry about nanoparticles is not that they are a ‘new’ type of materials (in fact, these materials are some of the same materials we know very well when they are make in bulk sizes, like a gold or silver ring that you wear on your finger), but that nanoparticles are so small that almost every part of the nanoparticle is ‘surface’. The high surface area causes some nanoparticles to be very active and reactive with other molecules in the environment or inside of our bodies.
Nanotechnology can be a life-saver… but it can also pose threats if we don’t know what we are doing and we release a ton of nanoparticles into the environment, or don’t dispose of them properly. The study of looking at the risks of nanoparticles to human health and the environment is known as nanotoxicology. This field is growing as researchers attempt to make sure that the nanoparticles we are making to help cure cancer and other diseases are not damaging to other parts of our body or our environment.
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