Nanoscience education for scientific literacy: Opportunities and challenges in secondary school and in out-of-school settings

University of Helsinki, Finland

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The rapid development and growing societal importance of nanoscience and nanotechnology (NST) have evoked educational concerns throughout the world. A mounting need for education in this emerging field has been recognized not only at the academic level but also in terms of citizens abilities to deal with personal, social and global issues related to NST. Some understanding of NST has been postulated to be relevant in up-to-date scientific literacy for all.

This doctoral dissertation addresses such concerns and lays the research-based groundwork for the future development of learning environments on NST. The aim was to map the educational needs, possibilities and challenges of bringing the topics of NST to secondary schools and out-of-school settings. To this end, the methodological framework of the Model of Educational Reconstruction was employed. The model combines analytical and empirical research in order to analyse a field s educational significance, identify its essential features, investigate both learners and teachers perspectives and develop approaches for teaching and learning. Accordingly, the research presented here adopted a pragmatist multi-method approach to scrutinize NST from diverse educational viewpoints.

The role of NST in scientific literacy was first explored through a theoretical-analytical study on the content structure, the nature and the implications of NST. Next, a group of secondary school teachers who had attended a course on NST was invited to evaluate the educational significance of the field s contents and their appropriateness for the curriculum. Another survey addressed Finnish science teachers views on barriers that hinder incorporating NST into the curriculum, and facilitators for overcoming these barriers. Specific challenges in learning and communicating NST were investigated through a literature review that was subsequently complemented with an interview study on science centre visitors perspectives on NST. On the basis of all these findings, research-based suggestions were put forth for the planning of NST education both in classrooms and through visits to science exhibitions and industry sites.

Both theoretical and empirical analyses identified several content areas as well as social and epistemological aspects of NST that render the field educationally interesting and relevant to scientific literacy. The results imply that, by addressing NST, science education could stimulate dialogue on important contemporary issues in the intersection of science, technology and society, and provide up-to-date views on the nature of science. However, the teachers also pointed out a number of difficulties in arranging instruction on NST in practice. Many of the indicated barriers are extrinsic to teachers and related to curricular constraints in particular. It is concluded that NST would be best incorporated in the curriculum as a transdisciplinary theme. The field has, in addition, a potential to integrate traditional science subjects and approaches by shifting the focus to the scale of natural phenomena. In any case, including NST in science classes also requires in-service teacher training and new resources for materials and equipment.

This dissertation highlights the research outcomes that should be taken into account when planning any learning environments on NST. Prior research has identified several challenges in learning and communicating NST, but also effective strategies for supporting the understanding of the nanoscale and its phenomena. The results of the interview study carried out here confirmed earlier findings. For instance, they implied that scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) images, powerful and thus used extensively in nanoscience communication, are liable to cause epistemological misunderstandings.
Some of the identified barriers for teaching NST may be circumvented by out-of-school methods. This dissertation suggests research-based models for the development of two specific learning environments: exhibitions in science museums and school group visits to industrial sites. The models strive to bridge the notorious gap between academic research and the development of educational practice. Their application to NST education as well as their broader implications are discussed. Furthermore, some methodological issues are raised because this research also explored the potential of the Model of Educational Reconstruction in informal and out-of-school contexts.

Full reference

Laherto, Antti (2012). Nanoscience education for scientific literacy: Opportunities and challenges in secondary school and in out-of-school settings. Academic dissertation. University of Helsinki, Finland. Report Series in Physics HU-P-D194 (ISSN 0356-0961). ISBN 978-952-10-7090-7 (printed version), ISBN 978-952-10-7091-4 (pdf version). Available online: URN:ISBN:978-952-10-7091-4 (Language: English)

List of Papers

Laherto, A. (2010). An analysis of the educational significance of nanoscience and nanotechnology in scientific and technological literacy. Science Education International, 21(3), 160–175.

Laherto, A. (2011). Incorporating nanoscale science and technology into secondary school curriculum: Views of nano-trained science teachers. NorDiNa - Nordic Studies in Science Education, 7(2), 126–139.

Kähkönen, A., Laherto, A., & Lindell, A. (2011). Intrinsic and extrinsic barriers to teaching nanoscale science: Finnish teachers’ perspectives. Journal of Nano Education, 3(1), 1–12.

Laherto, A. (2012). Informing the development of science exhibitions through educational research. International Journal of Science Education, Part B: Communication and Public Engagement, iFirst. DOI:10.1080/21548455.2012.694490.

Lavonen, J., Laherto, A., Loukomies, A., Juuti, K., Kim, M., Lampiselkä, J., & Meisalo, V. (2009). Enhancing Scientific Literacy through the Industry Site Visit. In S. Rodrigues (Ed.), Multiple Literacy and Science Education: ICTs in Formal and Informal Learning Environments (pp. 225–239). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.


Antti Laherto
Department of Physics, University of Helsinki
P.O. Box 64, FI-00014 University of Helsinki
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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