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Smaller is Better? Learning an Ethos and Worldview in Nanoengineering Education


In this article, I draw on ethnographic research to show how a particular ethos and worldview get produced in the context of “technical” education in a department of nanoengineering. Building on feminist science studies and communication theory, I argue that the curriculum introducing undergraduate students to scale implicitly teaches them an abstract and universal notion that smaller is better. I suggest that rather than smaller is better, a perspective that embraces context and specificity—such as the question “when, how, and for whom is smaller better?”—would ground nanoengineering in a more reflexive, pluralistic, and democratically oriented mode of world-building.

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  1. See Toumey [44], Junk and Riess [24], and Milburn [26] for discussions of how Feynman is made into the father figure of nanotechnology.

  2. See Winner [47] for a discussion of socially determined technological limits.

  3. For discussions of “constitutive exclusions,” see Barad [6]. For discussion of universal assumptions in western scientific practice, see Haraway [19], Harding [20], Reardon [39], and a theorization of feminist epistemology by Longino [30].

  4. Goodwin [15] argues that through highlighting, pointing, and work-specific practices of making sense of graphical images, professions produce an apparatus of vision that allows them to see the objects of knowledge central to their profession.

  5. See Milburn [26] for a discussion of how “nanovision” brings the future into present reality. See Adams, Murphy, and Clarke [3] for a discussion of anticipation in technoscience.

  6. See Barad [6] for a discussion of how scale, understood geometrically, suggests a spatial construction that is inherently exclusionary, whereas a topological analysis emphasizing ‘connectedness’ understands different scales as intra-actively produced. This is particularly apropos for thinking about nanoengineering, which is definitionally premised on the uniqueness of the nanoscale, and the ways in which it helps to produce the scales of nanomatter, nanoengineer (the person), nanoengineering (practices/community of practitioners), NanoEngineering (department/institution), nanotechnology industries, and nanotechnology-infused sociotechnical worlds.

  7. I have chosen not to name—even with pseudonyms—any of the students I interviewed to protect their identity. Each quote provided in this paper is from a different student.

  8. I have not independently verified this. In a preliminary search of companies that do RFID tracking for pharmaceuticals, I saw only references to using such devices in pharmaceutical and food packaging, not in individual pills.

  9. For Bakhtin, authoritative discourse refers to utterances that are fixed, often embodied by authoritative figures such as teachers and pastors. James Wertsch, writing about and quoting Bakhtin, writes that “instead of functioning as a generator of meaning or as a thinking device, an authoritative text ‘demands our unconditional allegiance,’ . . . It is ‘fused with its authority—with political power, an institution, a person—and it stands or falls together with that authority’” [46, p. 22]. This moment is one in which the professor is uttering authoritative speech in relation to the students, even as it is dialogic in relation to broader nanotechnology discourses.

  10. Not discussing the political here implicitly reinforces the idea that technology is apolitical. See Erin Cech for a discussion of how ideologies of meritocracy and depoliticization within engineering cultures frame social justice issues as “irrelevant to engineering practice” [10, p. 67].

  11. I have conducted over 80 interviews with nanoengineering students, faculty, and administrators, interviewing some students annually as they proceeded through the 4-year undergraduate major. Though students had a variety of responses when I ask them to define nanoengineering, they most commonly included some version of “engineering on a very small scale”, regardless of whether the student was in their first, second, third, or fourth years.

  12. The discourse that produces the dual identities of disruption and continuity in reference to scale does similar political work as that which claims nature as a nanotechnologist and nanotechnology as natural—fitting together the promise of revolutionary innovation with the security of incremental progress and/or progress that fits within a natural order. See Nordmann [36] for a discussion of the construction of “with nature beyond nature.”

  13. See Horton [22] for a discussion of how such visual juxtapositions enact a “scalar collapse” that privileges the scale of the human.

  14. Recall that the NNI’s vision invokes the language of controlling matter, and Feynman’s speech also refers to the “problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale” [13, p. 1].

  15. This is further evidenced by the departmental website: “[Nanoengineering] attempts to manipulate the ‘growth’ of materials on the nanometer scale, mimicking the processes of nature, which could potentially lead to a vast array of revolutionary materials and products that would benefit all other aspects of engineering, medicine, and other technologies, and everyday life” [31]. That is, the products of this world-making will be ubiquitous and, by definition, good.

  16. I observed this class 2 years in a row, and both times, this image evoked laughter by the students.

  17. The label again signals a connection to the previously referenced NNI image. Though the things represented are different, both images include pictures of “natural” and manmade objects.

  18. This is not to say that it necessarily achieves the goal of making students feel a naturalized, embodied relationship to the nanoscale. In interviews, students consistently related difficulty in conceptualizing or communicating the nanoscale aside from repeating the kinds of comparisons they have been taught, for example, how many nanometers comprise a dimension of a virus or a human hair.

  19. Every student whom I have asked has confirmed that these problems presented no challenge, mathematically. These students had already taken rigorous mathematics and physics classes, and most of them described the task of calculating the height of the campus library in millimeters as “easy.” To be sure, based on my observations in a nanoengineering laboratory that chemically synthesizes nanostructures, it seems clear that such laboratory work frequently requires scale-conversion calculations and that this is a basic skill that students need. Yet for a week and a half, much of the students’ in-class work, homework, and midterm examination is focused on these problems. It was for this reason that I asked the professor about his goal for these lectures on scale and scale-conversion problems, and why I ultimately decided to look more closely at what work they were doing.

  20. On “socio-ideological consciousness,” see Bakhtin [4, p. 276].

  21. This phrasing in used in a textbook in the curriculum but is also articulated in classroom contexts where, for example, geckos are invoked to demonstrate “nano” in nature. See Hornyak [21].

  22. This historical timeline is similar to the one used by the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). However, in my field site, Fantastic Voyage [25] is presented as an important element, situated between Feynman and Moore’s law, whereas it is not included by the NNI. See (last accessed 3 August 2014).

  23. This student had completed the second-year nano curriculum, therefore I am designating them as a “second-year student” even though their actual status is more ambiguous.

  24. See Barad [5] for a detailed discussion of how agential literacy, extending her philosophy of agential realism, differs from scientific literacy.

  25. See Thorpe and Gregory [43] for a critique of how “public engagement” as a mode of democratizing science can actually be a form of cooptation and control, preparing citizens to become consumers of technoscientific products.

  26. The professor in this course frequently invokes the term “nano dream”, spelled as either one or two words, and concludes the class with an injunction to the students to follow their nanodreams.

  27. This sentiment—variously articulated—is widespread in STS, Constructive Technology Assessment (CTA), and Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). For example, see Brune et al. [8] for a discussion of ethical vision assessment, particularly the recommendation “to not communicate futuristic visions without pointing to the ‘meta-knowledge’ about the visions: premises, presuppositions, values involved, uncertainties etc.” [8, p. 431]. See Adam and Groves’ [2] analysis of care as a mode through which responsibility can be refigured around interdependence rather than autonomy. Through care in this sense, one might examine nanodreams from multiple perspectives. Additionally, a “political imaginary of care” would consider “not only what a given technology might contribute to the fulfillment of human needs, but how it will affect the agency and identify of its users” [16, p. 199]. See Owen et al. for an examination of responsible innovation as entailing engagement that is “anticipatory, reflective, inclusively deliberate, and responsive” [38, p. 29, emphasis included], and Guston’s further examination of anticipation and the politics of novelty [17]. See Rip for a discussion of CTA and reflexivity [40]. See Barad’s discussion, building on the work of Judith Butler, of constitutive exclusions in relation to responsibility in science [6].


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I would like to thank Valerie Hartouni, Colin Milburn, and my reviewers for their generous feedback and support.

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Correspondence to Emily York.

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York, E. Smaller is Better? Learning an Ethos and Worldview in Nanoengineering Education. Nanoethics 9, 109–122 (2015).

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