There are a few that may not be thought of as options for middle and high school students, simply because they are evolving with this generation and were not featured in the options that many teachers had available to them. Artists and programmers who created the Virtual Lab provide examples of emerging careers in design and development. Scientists and engineers worked as subject matter experts, providing information and insights—as well as virtual specimens for our project.
There are other roles for evaluators, teachers, and project directors directly related to STEM education, and these are roles that I have had throughout this project. It's important to keep in mind that both women and men are pushing the frontiers of this work. Career counseling and advising in high school and in college will play a large role when working toward these kinds of STEM careers, but earlier exploration paired with guidance is better to develop the necessary skills for success. In terms of nanotechnology, while aiming for specific goals in terms ofthe economic competitiveness of the United States, we also need to focus on ways students today can be part of the effort to improve the pathways toward those goals.
While the Virtual Lab can be used in middle, high school, and college classrooms, can programmers, scientists, and other researchers also get involved?
Yes, definitely. The Cogs Web site offers a place for microscopists to view requested specimens and to discuss ways of contributing to the project. Dr. Glenn Fried and Dr. Ben Grosser and their colleagues at the Beckman Institute who developed the software also have made sure that the architecture is open source on SourceForge. Defined in XML code, the Virtual Lab can be easily expanded by the developer community (see: http://virtual.itg.uiuc.edu/software/).
From your perspective, what role can the Virtual Lab play as we seek to prepare students in the United States to fuel innovation in the field of nanotechnology research and development?
The Virtual Lab specifically allows students to see objects that are familiar and relevant to everyday living at the level of millimeters and microns. In order to think and work at the level of nanometers, students need to understand the concept of scale while also experiencing the level of detail possible through advanced microscopy.
More generally in terms of careers in STEM, both men and women need to approach study as an active experience that they can do rather than as a secondary report that they can read about. The Virtual Lab allows students to experience first-hand investigation guided by their teachers using equipment that was once out-of-reach for almost all schools in terms of space available for equipment and expense.
There will continue to be debate over the ways to best prepare students for STEM careers, just as there will be debate over the role ofvirtual labs in education. We need to be clear that in both cases there are conclusive research findings and we are able to act on them. Overall, the Virtual Lab allows more diverse populations access to advanced microscopes across all socioeconomic status (SES) levels when adequate technology access and support is available.
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