Technology is everywhere. We use it every time we flip a light switch, get a drink of water, or buy groceries. We use technology and probably never stop to think about how different our lives would be without it.
As part of the National Science Foundation–funded Internships in Public Science Education (IPSE) program, we have created a classroom activity that encourages middle school students to think about the interactions between technology, individuals, and communities. Good and bad, the effects of technology on society are important, real-world issues. It is also important to explore the effects of society on technology. Unfortunately, though, the symbiotic relationship between technology and ourselves is often overlooked in science education.
Today’s science curriculum is increasingly content driven. However, we endeavored to create material that includes personal and social perspectives in science. In accordance with national teaching standards, this activity allows middle school teachers to orchestrate discussion among students about scientific ideas and to challenge students to accept responsibility for their own learning. Students use their critical thinking skills to explore the impact of technology not only on their own lives, but also on the lives of others in their community.
Although initially developed around an application of nanotechnology (see sidebar), this module can be modified to reflect any type of technology such as cars, vaccines, or computers. The activity incorporates language arts, social studies, and science standards into a curriculum and can be successfully incorporated into units about atoms or molecules, or units designed to fulfill the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996) Science in Personal and Social Perspectives content standard. The full activity is available online at no charge and can be easily modified to fit a variety of curriculum needs. The lesson plan is targeted at middle school students and should last one hour or one class period (for further information, see Resources).
Leading the activity
We begin by asking students to think of some technologies that they used while getting ready for school. Often, we help the students by telling them that one technology we used was a toothbrush. At this point in the activity, the students have not been asked to define technology. By mentioning the toothbrush, the students begin to develop general ideas about what we mean by technology, that it could even be as simple as tools that make life easier. The toothbrush idea also helps students think of examples that are not as easily apparent as, for example, a clock radio.
After the class has given 10 good examples of technologies they used while getting ready for school, we ask them to think about technologies that people in their communities use throughout the day. We steal the answer “computer” by using it as an example. Usually, any answer that the students give is accepted. Common answers include telephones, cell phones, police scanners, traffic lights, and fax machines.
After collecting 10 good examples, we repeat a few examples back to students and ask them to explain how they personally use the technology and how it is used in their communities. Do the students use cell phones differently than others in a community? What about a toaster? Shoelaces? Obviously, the answers vary, and we ask the students if they agree with the applications their classmates suggested. We also ask the class if there are any harmful uses of any of these technologies. There are not many different uses for a toaster, but the different uses of shoelaces can provide some lively discussion! To get the students’ attention during this part of the activity, we toss a ball to the students who raise their hands with examples of a technology. The students respond very favorably to the ball toss, and they give a lot more answers when we use this technique than when we do not. This part of the activity should last between 5 and 10 minutes.
The second part of the activity has to do with using technology to solve a problem facing a community. First, pick the type of technology you want the class to use. Nanotech spider silk (see sidebar) works well. Because we have created nine communities (available online, see Resources) for this activity, the class must be broken up into nine (or fewer) small groups before starting this portion of the activity. Once in their groups, we explain to the class what they will be doing during this activity.
|Nanotechnology: Thinking small|
What is nanotechnology?
Nano means “billionth,” so a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. Nanotechnology is technology on the scale of the nanometer, or the nanoscale. That’s small! When scientists and engineers make something using nanotechnology, they manipulate particles on the atomic or molecular level. Current examples of nanotechnology include stain-resistant fabrics, LED traffic lights, more powerful sunscreens, and self-cleaning windows.
Nanotech spider silk
What is it?
An example of nanotechnology, nanotech spider silk is made of carbon nanotubes. Scientists are interested in nanotubes because of their strength and conductivity. Nanotech spider silk is twice as strong as regular spider silk and five times stronger than steel. No other material—natural or synthetic—can compare to the strength of nanotech spider silk. Applications of a fiber with this kind of strength include safety harnesses, explosion-proof blankets for air cargo areas, and bulletproof vests and shields.
Each group represents a different type of community, and each community has different problems that need to be addressed. The community descriptions give the students important information that they will need to design a product to help their community. Each description includes the community name, location, population, community focus (what is important to people living in that community), and problems facing that community (see Figure 1 for an example). The nine communities that we designed can, of course, be changed to reflect other geographic locations. We have chosen Dairy Town, Rust Belt Town, Deserted Island, Las Vegas, Space Station, State Prison, Traveling Circus, Fishing Village, and Retirement Community. While the Dairy Town community works well in Wisconsin, it might not work in Florida.
Figure 1. Dairy Town: A sample community
- Dairy production
- Cattle feed production
- Cows escape from pastures.
- Price of production—farmers need cheaper ways to feed their cattle and to get their products to market.
- Waste disposal—you don’t want to pollute the land and water or spread disease. Proper removal of the cows’ waste is very important.
Students will need to read the description carefully before designing a product. The groups then must use the nanotech spider silk (or other chosen technology) to fix one or more of the problems facing their assigned community. Each community description handout has parameters and leading questions that help students develop solutions to these problems. Groups may design as many products as they want to help their community. Each group must also make and present a poster describing their community and showing a drawing of the technological product they have designed. Each group receives a community description, sheet of poster paper, and package of markers.
The students receive 20 minutes to plan and design their poster presentations. The posters should tell the class what type of community the group is, what type of products the group came up with, and what problem the product solves. Each group has two minutes to present their poster to the class, but if time is more limited, the presentations can be shorter.
While we have had success completing this activity in one class period, teachers could also stretch it out over several days by choosing several communities and discussing each one individually. Another option would be to assign the posters as individual homework for students to turn in later. Students could also conduct research to identify either a specific application of the activity’s general technology or a new technology that could be the focus of the entire activity. A final possibility would be for students to focus on changing one community completely by using several technologies.
Assessment strategies for these different approaches vary. In many of the classrooms where we led the activity, teachers gave credit only for participation. However, in addition to participation, students could also be assessed on their creativity, accuracy, completion of the assigned tasks, and the thoroughness with which they completed their projects. The student posters and the accompanying presentations provide excellent opportunities for the instructor to gather and assess this information.
Megan Anderson is a journalism graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Greta M. Zenner is the science editor for the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. J. Aura Gimm is a research associate for the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an assistant professor of practice in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
We greatly appreciate the internships that made the development of this activity possible. The National Science Foundation has provided funding for this effort through Internships in Public Science Education (IPSE) (DMR-0120897) and the Interdisciplinary Education Group of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (DMR-0079983). We especially would like to thank Professors Wendy Crone and Clark Miller, Christopher Luebke, Wendy DeProphetis, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Tom Derenne (Discovery World: The James Lovell Museum of Science, Economics, and Technology in Milwaukee, Wisconsin).
National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National science education standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
IPSE website: mrsec.wisc.edu/edetc/IPSE
Nanotechnology Now: nanotech-now.com/current-uses.htm
Nanotechnology Toughs It Out Over Spider Silk, by Liz Kalaugher, editor of Nanotechweb.org, the World Service for Nanotechnology: www.utdallas.edu/research/news/fiber/Nanotechweb%20Coverage.pdf
Spiders Put a New Spin on Nanotech Industry, by Jayne Fried: www.smalltimes.com/print_doc.cfm?doc_id=3395