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Nanotech for 6th graders: please comment

from the kids-get-the-concept-faster dept.
Miguel Aznar of the nonprofit KnowledgeContext requests the nanodot community to comment on this essay on nanotechnology written for 6th graders. The students will read this essay and then write a "presidential address" to help the U.S. public understand and evaluate it. KnowledgeContext provides curriculum to teachers of grades 5 to 12 that prepares young people for rapid technological change.

7 Responses to “Nanotech for 6th graders: please comment”

  1. redbird Says:

    Generally good

    For the most part it read well, introducing nanotech in a positive light while making sure to note that, like any technology, it could be used for evil. One of my concerns is writing a presidential address. Why not a UN address to the whole world?

    Also, I'm not sure that you explain fully some of what can be done with nanotech. I felt the the essay linked some ideas too weakly for 6th graders, but then maybe 6th graders now have better comprehension skills than I did. If I were still in 6th grade, I would probably have to read this a few times to make all of the connections that we take for granted, like the potential for nanobots to assemble matter. In addition, I'm not sure enough emphasis was put on NEMS, which could produce technology like a real Bablefish or computer monitors that rest on the eye like a contact.

  2. MarkGubrud Says:

    Adults have trouble with this one, too

    On the whole, this is a well-written, and surprisingly balanced article, but I do observe that in spite of the prominent warnings about "great dangers", much more space, color, and detail is given to the "great benefits" and exciting career possibilities, while the dangers remain rather vague. I have one particular danger in mind, which is alluded to in this sentence:

    That same power could create weapons, if someone with nanotechnology wanted to kill people.

    The United States and its allies do not create weapons because they want to kill people. Right? But we do create weapons, and it will be quite a remarkable outcome if we do not create them using nanotechnology. So we can be pretty certain that "someone with nanotechnology" will "create weapons", and that someone might not be a stranger, indeed, she may well be someone introduced to the subject by reading this essay.

    Here's how I might address the issue:

    When people develop new technology, military forces always look to see how they can use the technology in weapons. They fear that if they don't have the best weapons, other countries will be able to challenge them. But when the military people in other countries see them doing this, they race to catch up and try to get ahead. As everyone rushes to stay ahead in weapons and technology, countries become more suspicious and hostile toward each other. This is called an arms race, and if it is not stopped, it can lead to war.

    Nanotechnology can create weapons as destructive as nuclear weapons, but far more sophisticated and threatening, because they could be used in many different ways. Probably the greatest danger from nanotechnology is that countries will use it to create weapons in an arms race, instead of agreeing to treaties that limit their weapons. If they do agree, the treaties could be verified and enforced, using nanotechnology, to make sure no one cheats.

  3. BryanBruns Says:

    Comments from a sixth grader

    I think the article was pretty good because it was easy to understand and interesting. I didn't know about the nanobots and nanometer before.

    Lily Bruns (as dictated to her dad)

  4. Adam Burke Says:

    Some notes

    A few random notes that come to mind:

    First sentence:What if you could take all the extra carbon atoms floating around in the air (from car exhaust, factory smokestacks, and our breathing) and assemble them into diamonds? ->
    What if you could turn air into diamonds? (It's punchier. You deal with the atoms thing later anyway.)

    Check for correct use of which instead of that; it catches me up all the time in third person writing .

    It sometimes burns down houses and kills people, but it also has keeps us warm and cooks our food. ->
    It sometimes burns down houses and kills people, but it also keeps us warm and cooks our food.

    If you did not have to worry about food and shelter, would you sit around all day playing video games, or would you search out the secrets of the Universe? ->
    Kids don't have to worry about food and shelter :) I would not phrase this as a question but instead as a list of things you could do with your time. I would put video games on that list. They're fun.

    It's a touch jumpy; this is hard to avoid when you cover this quantity of ideas, but I'd do a reread and see if you can smooth it out further.

  5. pethorne Says:

    Structure and complex topics

    For collaborative web authoring, I can mention WebScrivener for marking-up documents (only works in MSIE-5), and CritSuite (the site *never* seems to be up). I'm finding it surprisingly difficult to "think down" to the pre-MNT level of chemical understanding I possessed in sixth grade; my eye tends to skip over the obvious/fundamental/familiar phrases. That said…

    Several paragraphs topic-jump from benefits to dangers. One, this underplays the significance of the dangers, and two, a student skim-reading (for topic sentences) could easily overlook them altogether.

    "Humans [...] built down to the pencil by breaking away many of the atoms. [...][ICs are built] down from big crystals of silicon instead of up"*build* implies assembly/become-larger, but a more fitting term here is *carve*, implying become-smaller.

    "Nobody knows exactly how [...] a guess [...] Nanobots could, in theory" — theoretical caveats are essential, but should be concentrated in one section. If interspersed with each topic, they interrupt the flow.

    "When it can be built practically, however, there are plans for how to build more" — a confusing/dubious description of "theoretical engineering". Would kids have any experience with this "we don't have it, but we know how we'd use it if we did" concept? With design/engineering, period? Those who play with LEGO bricks or read "Star Trek" tech manuals, perhaps.

    "In some ways, they would appear to be alive, eating sunlight, handling atoms, and making children nanobots" — a cautiously-phrased sentence, but it could still propagate the misleading "nanobots/replicators are living" meme. These will be ("are", to use the essay's timeless-present) *machines* with a specific purpose and no volition; they don't have "children" to fulfill biological or social imperatives. The vocabulary should make this very clear. (Sure, we *could* engineer volition into them, but that axis of complications/subtleties doesn't belong in an introductory essay.)

    "The number of nanobots doubling everyday is a guess, but doubling is the kind of growth that we see in the history of technology" — commingles two distinct concepts: self (exponential, etc.) replication and Moore's "Law". Replication is necessary to create a sufficient population of assemblers to build macroscopic products. Growth in the capability of a particular technology (its price/performance ratio) is unrelated.

    "Nanotechnology may change us in many ways [...] we might be able to live as long as we want" — good; Aznar omits the wacky/fringe/bizarre/confusing possibilities of bodysculpting/uploading. I suggest limiting the discussion of medical benefits to fitness/health: obesity, sickness, injury — maladies active children will've seen/experienced. Thoughts: one, kids are accustomed to pretend-play in which they become animals, vehicles, etc. Two, kids have limited understanding of mortality; a grandparent might die, or a friend, but they perceive themselves are vigorous/immortal. IMHO, they can barely imagine college and career (I certainly couldn't), let alone prolongation.

  6. JeromeEGarcia Says:

    Emphasize replication issue

    I think that generally it is a good article. However, I think that the issue of replication control should be emphasized by including a new second paragraph. Perhaps something like the following: "What if you could turn air into a new life form or a swarm of new life forms like a bee hive? What if the new life form you created could evolve to be intellegent, friendly, and help make a better universe? What if it evolved to think humans and other living things were food? What if you could control it? What if you could not? Should you create it? Should you stop others from creating it? Can you? What should you do if you can't?"

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