Nanotechnology: Content and Context

Nanotechnology: Content and Context (Anthropology 235/Chemistry 235) as taught by Christopher Kelty and Kristen Kulinowski at Rice University

A 2003 SENCER Model


Nanotechnology (NT) research has been the beneficiary of a level of government funding not seen since the Manhattan Project and the moon-shot program. Advocates claim that the new technology could greatly enhance human performance, transform manufacturing, provide cheap, clean energy, and shrink computers to nanoscopic dimension, while skeptics raise legitimate concerns about unintended negative consequences, such as the technology’s potential to cause disease or environmental disruption. Sorting out and evaluating these claims and concerns, and shaping policy for the development of future nanotechnology applications, requires technical and scientific knowledge as well as an understanding of scientific research as a social and political process.

Nanotechnology: Content and Contexts has no pre-requisites and fulfills general education requirements in social science (for science majors) or science (for non-science majors). It is a team-taught, cross-listed course that uses the emerging field of Nanotechnology to explore both scientific content and its social and policy contexts. The science and technical topics addressed include the mathematics of scale, microscopy, the synthesis of carbon-based nanomaterials, nanomachines, quantum dots, piezoelectric and photovoltaic nanomaterials, natural biomoters, and the applications of nanotechnology to medicine and environmental problems. The social and policy contexts explored include risk assessment, science funding, intellectual property, ethics of biotechnology, and environmental regulation. The two core faculty are joined by six other instructors who teach specific units in their areas of expertise, and there are occasional guest lecturers as well.

Several active learning strategies are used in this course, including role-play exercises, peer-led learning, classroom discussions, and in-class labs. During the course students research and build their own glossary of technical terms specific to NT. Assessment of student learning is supplemented by the use of the SALG (Student Assessment of Learning Gains) Instrument at the beginning and end of the course.

The Course


The goal of “Nanotechnology: Context and Content” is to teach some basic nanoscience/nanotechnology by putting it in a social and cultural context. Students are expected to learn both some basic science and technology and at the same time, some techniques for understanding the social and cultural significance, role, and possible effects of this emerging science. Students from from all majors are encouraged to take this class. In addition, students are expected to assist each other in learning and discussing the content and the context, and to maintain respect for both the scientific and the social and cultural approaches.

The class is designed for, but not necessarily restricted to, freshlings and sophomores. Two main instructors will coordinate the class, and 6 other instructors have been invited to teach in particular weeks. This means students should be prepared for a bit of a roller-coaster ride of different topics and questions, but with the underlying goal of teaching science and technology by looking at it in context. Be prepared to learn diverse things from people with different teaching styles. This also means that attendance is mandatory, since there will be no way to “make up” the lectures given by our guests.

You can receive either Group II or Group III distribution credit from this course (but not both!). For Group II Credit, sign up for Anth 235; for Group III credit, sign up for Chem 235.

Just in case it is not obvious: you need to complete ALL of the work in the class to receive credit for the course.

Linking Science and Social Issues

Why Is This Course a SENCER Model?

The course explores both the substance of nanoscience and nanotechnology and the social/cultural aspects and implications of it. Nanotechnology (NT) research has been the beneficiary of a level of government funding not seen since the Manhattan Project and the moon-shot program. Such generous and focused funding has attracted the attention of both enthusiasts and skeptics, each of whom could influence the technology’s future trajectory. Advocates generate public support and draw students into the field by touting the new technology’s societal benefits, which may include the ability to enhance human performance, transform manufacturing, provide cheap, clean energy, and shrink computers to nanoscopic dimensions. However, enthusiastic claims can also serve to create outsized expectations that may be difficult to meet in the near-term. Some critics raise legitimate concerns about unintended negative consequences, such as the technology’s potential to cause disease or social disruption, which could influence applications developers and policy makers to develop practices and policies that avoid these problems. Even more adamant critics attract media attention by instilling fear and undermining public confidence in NT with unlikely doomsday scenarios.

Because so many of nanotechnologies benefits and consequences are still unrealized, it offers rich opportunities for both science learning and civic reflection. Distinguishing the actual fact from the speculative images, and the possible technologies from the improbable outcomes, requires a technical understanding of NT. Sorting out and responsibly evaluating the concerns about social disruption or inequity requires understanding scientific and technical research as a social and political process. By combining these skills in the classroom we hope to cultivate a critical and civil discussion of science and technology in an emerging field amongst a younger generation. This project combines the content of NT, (e.g., the methods of visualization, experimentation, manufacture, and the evaluation of what is and is not technically feasible) with the social context of NT (issues of ethics, regulation, risk assessment, history, funding, intellectual property, controversy and conflict). We target a broad range of students because today’s undergraduates are tomorrow’s producers and consumers of NT applications. They will also become the civic leaders, regulators or policy makers that will influence NT’s future trajectory.

What Teaching and Learning Strategies Are Used to Connect the Science Content to the Civic Context?

Glossaries: Each week, students submit a one-page definition of two technical terms from the readings and class discussions such that by the end of the course, each student has produced a glossary of 30 concepts specific to NT. The glossary entries are graded for technical accuracy and articulation of social context.

Quizzes: A brief quiz is administered at the end of each theme to assess the students’ understanding of the content of that theme. Students are given a set of mandatory questions, which address both content and context, and asked to choose from among several other questions. In this way, no student avoids being assessed on material from the less familiar aspect of the course (i.e., science student must answer questions about social aspects and vice versa), yet they get a chance to play to their strengths.

Role-play exercise: This capstone experience requires the student to adopt the role of an actor in society, research the likely viewpoint of that actor with respect to a scenario involving the potential impact of nanotechnology on a local community, and articulate that viewpoint through written and oral testimony at a city council meeting. Students are assessed on the depth of their research, as well as the clarity and impact of their appeals.

Website: The course’s website (Nanotechnology: Content and Context (Anth 235/Chem 235)) features news items, articles, and other interesting links that relate to nanotechnology, an electronic discussion list, and an e-bulletin board. All class materials, including many of the course readings, are available through the site.

Participation: Preparation for, and involvement in, classroom discussion and experimental activities are a significant portion of the student’s grade.

What Capacious Civic Questions or Problems Are Addressed in the Course and How They Are Linked to the Science Content?


Glossary Assignment

Here’s a few definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary to get you thinking about what it means to write a gloss on a term, and to collect those glosses into a glossary.

gloss, v.

a. trans. To insert glosses or comments on; to comment upon, explain, interpret
b. intr. To introduce a gloss, comment, or explanation upon a word or passage in a text. Also in wider sense, to make comments or remarks (esp.
unfavourable ones) upon a person’s words or actions.

glossary n.

1. A collection of glosses; a list with explanations of abstruse, antiquated, dialectal, or technical terms; a partial dictionary. 1696 Phil. Trans. XIX. 264. The Glossary, at the end, is not only an Account of Words and Phrases, but also an explication of ancient Customs, Laws, and Manners.

Over the semester, students will make a glossary for themselves of terms and phrases central to each the texts we are reading on nanotechnology, culture and society: such as buckministerfullerene, molecular manufacturing, risk perception, posthumanism, convergence, scale effects and so on. The entries in the glossary should define what these things are, but also elaborate on and comment on the significance of these things – historically, economically, culturally, personally.

There must be at least one entry for each week’s readings/lectures, and each entry should be approximately a page long. While the entry should draw on the reading/lectures, students are encouraged to look around for examples and illustrations from the world around them.

Illustrating terms is not limited to writing about them, you may use whatever mode you can think of. This is meant to be a creative exercise in exploring different orders and modes of definition so that you define terms in your own way, with your own words or pictures.

Due: Every Tuesday, In Class

Role Playing Assignment

More information later in the semester…

Readings and Quizzes

Assignment #1: Writing a Book Review of Prey

Choose one of the following:

1. You are a science journalist, working for the Houston Chronicle, and you are assigned to write a review of Prey for the science section assessing the scientific content of the novel and/or the representation of science in the novel.

2. You are on the Society and Culture beat at the Houston Press, and you have been assigned to write a review of Prey for a special section cleverly titled (by your editor) “New Disasters in Fiction.” Write a review assessing the novel’s vision of culture and society, and the role of science in it. Reviews are 1000 words, they do not contain spoilers, and they do not summarize the book. Feel free to use outside sources, as long as you cite them (but beware that since this is a review, you have limited space to insert quotations).

Here are a handful of reviews of Prey to give you a sense of how others have reviewed the book:

1. Nanotechnology Now’s Prey review
2. “The Future Needs Us!” Prey review


Evaluating Learning

Evaluation and Assessment Strategies

Student achievement is assessed through a variety of assignments and tests, including quizzes, writings assignments, attendance and participation, performance in a role-playing exercise, and the creation of their individual “glossary.” In addition to the standard course evaluation process, students are also required to participate in “pre” and “post” versions of the on-line SENCER SALG (Student Assessment of Learning Gains).


Quizzes and writing assignments: 40%

Because there are multiple instructors in the course, there will also be multiple forms of testing and writing. For most of the “content” weeks, these will take-home quizzes on the material covered; for the “context” weeks, they will be writing assignments of some kind. All students are expected to take (and hopefully pass!) all of the assignments.

Attendance and Participation in Discussion: 20%

All students are expected to attend all classes, and demonstrate engagement with the material through discussion, questions and interaction with each other and with the invited lecturers. Student participation will be assessed on a case by case basis.

Glossary: 20%

Each Tuesday, students will hand in a “glossary entry” which explains the significance of some concept or term from the previous week.

Semester-end Role Playing Exercise: 20%

An end of semester mock debate, in which students are expected to learn specific roles and play them out in class.

Honor Code and Plagiarism

Quizzes and writing assignments are expected to be the student’s own work. Faculty will make clear before each one, whether it is timed, open/closed book, or involves other restrictions.

Glossary entries must clearly indicate sources, when used, using proper citation (if you don’t know, ask!). Glossary entries are expected to be the student’s own orginal work.

The Role Playing assignment will involve students working together in groups. Any written components may be done collaboratively, but again, all referenced sources must be properly.

Student Assessment of Learning Gains

The student assessment of Learning Gains is a survey. It is required of all students, but will have no effect on grades or standing in the class. The data entered will only be used by Rice faculty in the aggregate. Individual responses will not be matched to student identities.

All students must fill out the pre-course survey, which can be found here: Student Assessment of Learning Gains


Related Resources

Readings and Other Resources

Required Books:

Required Books are either available at the Campus Bookstore, or from your favorite book retailer.

Nanotechnology: A Gentle Introduction to the Next Big Idea by Ratner and Ratner.

Prey by Michael Crichton

Other Required Readings:
All other required readings will be listed on the website. These readings are either available online, or made available through Electronic Course reserves at Rice University.

Electronic Course Reserves

Password will be handed out in class.

Alan Gross “The Social Drama of Recombinant DNA” in The Rhetoric of Science, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Robert Hooke, “Of the Schematisme of Texture of Cork and of the Cells and Pores of Some other such Frothy Bodies,”

Antony Van Leeuwenhoek, “Observations . . . Concerning Little Animals,”

Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, The Golem at Large (Introduction, Ch. 6, Conclusion), Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, The Golem: What you should know about science 2nd ed. (Introduction, Ch. 3, Ch.5 and Conclusion), Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Peter Galison, Image and Logic: a material culture of microphysics,
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Use the same password as for electronic course reserves

Mr. Bungle, None of them knew they were robots from the album California

Mr. Bungle, Golem II – The Bionic Vapor Boy

Other Online Readings

Required Reading (accessible to non-science majors)

  1. Colbert & Smalley, Past, present, and future of Fullerene Nanotubes: Buckytubes. Perspectives of Fullerene Nanotechnology, Kluwer, 2002
    (historical review on discovery of Nanotubes and synthesis methods)
  2. Daenen et al., The wondrous world of Nanotubes. TU Eindhoven, 2003 (review of synthesis methods and applications, written by a group of undergraduate students as part of a class project)
  3. Collins & Avouris, Nanotubes for electronics. Scientific American, p. 62, Dec. 2000 (review and perspective on potential applications of Carbon Nanotubes; judged their application as superstrong materials as science fiction)
  4. Baughman, Putting a new spin on Carbon Nanotubes. Science, 290, p. 1310, Nov. 2000 (commentary and perspective on the article of Vigolo et al., published in the same issue of Science. The article demonstrates a method for making super-strong fibers of Carbon Nanotubes)
  5. Goho, Nice threads, Science News, 165, p. 363 (2004) (perspective article on progress in making macroscopic fibers of SWNTs.)

Additional Reading (more difficult readings)

  1. Vigolo et al., Macroscopic fibers and ribbons of oriented Carbon Nanotubes. Science, 290, p. 1331, Nov. 2000 (first report of the
    production of continuous strong fibers of Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes)
  2. Davis & Pasquali, Macroscopic fibers of Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes. Nanoengineering of structural, functional and smart materials, CRC Press (in press) (review of methods for making fibers of SWNTs as of mid-2004)

Other Reading

  1. Richard Turton, The Quantum Dot, New York, Oxford University Press, 1995. Chapters 1 and 2.
  2. A Practical Guide to Scanning Probe Microscopy by Rebecca Howland and Lisa Benatar, Park Scientific Instruments,
  3. Richard Turton, The Quantum Dot, New York, Oxford University Press, 1995. Chapters 4 and 5.
  4. Richard Turton, The Quantum Dot, New York, Oxford University Press, 1995. Chapter 7.
  5. William Boyd, “Wonderful Potencies? Deep structure and the problem of monopoly in agricultural biotechnology” in Engineering Trouble, California U. Press, 2003.
  6. Peter Shorett, Paul Rabinow and Paul Billings, “The Changing Norms of the Life Sciences” in Nature Biotechnology 21:123-125, 2003.
  7. Reading: Anne Kerr, Sarah Cunningham-Burley, Amando Amos,”The new genetics and health: mobilizing lay expertise,” in Public Understanding of Science 7 :41-60, 1998.
  8. “Once and Future Nanomachines,” by George Whitesides, Scientific American September 16th, 2001
  9. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama, 2002. Chps 1, 4, & 6.10.
  10. Environmental Technologies at the Nanoscale” by Tina Masciangioli & Wei-Xian Zhang. Environmental Science and Technology, March 2003.
  11. “The potential environmental impact of engineered nanomaterials” by Vicki Colvin, Nature Biotechnology, Oct. 2003.
  12. “Nanotechnology: Looking As We Leap” by Ernie Hood, Environmental Health Perspectives, Sept. 2004.
  13. “Nanotech Forum Aims to Head Off Replay of Past Blunders” by Robert Service, Science, Nov. 2004.
  14. “Nanotech Group’s Invitations Declined” by Rick Weiss, Washington Post, Oct. 28, 2004.
  15. “How Can You Patent Genes” by Rebecca Eisenberg in Who owns life? ed. Magnus, Caplan and McGee, Prometheus, 2002
  16. “Tiny Ideas Coming of Age” by Barnaby Feder, New York Times October 24th, 2004. Section 4.

Background and Optional Reading

Philosophy and Social Analysis

  • Further Reading: “Science in the news: a study of reporting genomics” by Eunice Kua, Michael Reder, and Martha J. Grossel in Public Understanding of Science 13 (2004) 309-322.
  • Bill Joy, Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us Wired 8.04

Encyclopedias and Reference Work

  • Dekker Nanotechnology Encyclopedia available on the Rice Campus Network

Novels and Short Stories

  • Blood Music by Greg Bear
  • The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
  • Limits of Vision be Linda Nagata
  • Nanotime Bart Kosko
  • The Nanotech Cycle by Kathleen Ann Goonan includes Mississippi Blues, The Bones of Time, Queen City Jazz, Crescent City Rhapsody, and Light Music

Magazines and Blogs

  • Small Times
  • Howard Lovy’s Nanobot

Additional Readings for Final Glossary Assignment

  • “Manufactured Nanomaterials (Fullerenes, C60) Induce Oxidative Stress in the Brain of Juvenile Largemouth Bass” by Eva Oberdorster.
  • The Differential Cytotoxicity of Water-Soluble Fullerenes.

Background and Context

What is the role of the course in your institution’s undergraduate curriculum?

Rice University is a private, research institution with a highly-selective undergraduate program. The Nanotechnology course has no prerequisites and is targeted toward first- and second-year students from any discipline. It is designed for a mix of science and non-science majors in order to promote cross disciplinary discussions. A major attraction of the course for undergraduates is that the course is cross-listed in the chemistry and anthropology departments and it satisfies general education requirements for both science and non-science majors. Students majoring in social science or humanities disciplines can have the class counted toward their Group III science distribution requirement; science and engineering students can have the class counted toward their Group II social science distribution requirement. This provides a compelling incentive to take the class for the many Rice students whose required curricula leave little room for elective courses. The course does not fulfill requirements for any major.