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At FSU, a ‘revolutionary’ approach to science education

Harold Kroto

In a basement on the Florida State University campus, one of the world’s foremost scientists is working to ignite a revolution. But Sir Harold Kroto’s mission isn’t the overthrow of a government; instead, he is making use of modern technology to launch what he calls a "revolution" in the way schoolchildren all over the world are taught about science.

In a career spanning more than four decades, Kroto has scaled the heights of scientific achievement. But for his latest challenge, the FSU chemistry professor, English knight and Nobel laureate is developing new ways of using the Internet to get children all over the world excited about science—and willing to work together to address some of humanity’s most pressing problems.

Kroto, FSU’s Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry, has launched an educational initiative he calls GEO, short for "Global Educational Outreach." Using relatively inexpensive "capture station" technology, Kroto, with FSU colleagues, is creating his own science programs, complete with video feeds, photos, graphics and PowerPoint presentations, and then making them accessible via the Internet to classrooms all over the world. The immediate focus, he said, is not the students, but their teachers, who can be empowered by having access to the best teaching materials worldwide, all packaged for immediate use in the classroom.

To view a prototype of GEO, visit this link and click on "Chemistry."

"I think this is a revolution for education," Kroto said, adding that his aim is to develop a user-friendly system that he and his FSU colleagues can operate by themselves. "This will allow us to create inexpensive, very effective teaching programs and make them available No Title globally, not just locally," he said.

As Kroto envisions it, GEO also will provide an effective forum for bridging divisions between the sciences and the humanities, as well as those between cultures.

"I want kids to think about science and art together; I don’t want to No Title separate them," he said. "I also want all our children to be taught together. Whatever their faith, race or nationality, they must learn together—particularly about the sciences. Science is the same whichever country you live in, whichever personal philosophy you have—it is just knowledge and is totally independent of personal attitudes. The Internet may be our last hope of promoting true global citizenship—a world community that sees no differences between colors and nations—and possibly saving the Enlightenment.

"Of course, science must be used wisely, and the only way to ensure that is by good education. Ignorance allied with irrationality will surely be disastrous.  And if we don’t (do this), we’re going to have a problem, because the issue that we face today is sustainability," Kroto said. "We want young people to address these problems … We use something like a million years’ worth of fossil fuel every year. Just think about it: It took a million years to produce the gasoline that goes into your petrol tank. We’ve got to make everybody and especially our young people aware of it. As they pour gasoline into their cars, they are pouring in the leftover remains of dinosaurs and pterodactyls that lived countless millions of years ago."

To produce GEO’s teaching materials, a studio, located in the basement of FSU’s Dittmer Laboratory of Chemistry, has been created by Kroto in association with two chemistry-department colleagues, Professor Penny Gilmer and adjunct instructor Colin Byfleet. They are receiving technical assistance from David Simpson of FSU’s APPS: Center for Teaching and Learning, and from Gary Poplin, an engineer in chemistry.

A professor of chemistry at Sussex University in England for 37 years, Kroto joined the faculty at FSU in 2004. He is best known for his discovery, with colleagues Richard E. Smalley and Robert F. Curl Jr., of buckminsterfullerene, a unique carbon molecule consisting of 60 carbon atoms arranged as a spheroidal cage. Buckminsterfullerene, whose individual molecules have been dubbed "buckyballs," was found to be extraordinarily strong and light and to form superconducting compounds. Its discovery has opened up an entirely new branch of science known as Fullerene Chemistry and has led to a completely new and important perspective on the structure and properties of sheet materials at nanoscale dimensions. As a result of their research, Kroto, Curl and Smalley were awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

When not preparing content for the GEO site, Kroto maintains a schedule that would exhaust a younger person. A full schedule of presentations at conferences and symposia, university science departments and schools, as well as science workshops for small children, often can take him to four other continents within the space of a month.

He also is much sought after as a speaker on humanitarian and other social-responsibility issues through such organizations as the Centre for Inquiry, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, and the Pugwash Conferences, an organization of influential scholars and public figures concerned with reducing the danger of armed conflict and seeking cooperative solutions for global problems. However, Kroto was quick to add that he can only maintain such a rigorous schedule because his wife, Margaret, spends hours each day meticulously organizing his highly complex schedule, as well as "covering the plethora of other major logistical issues that continually arise and have to be dealt with," he said.

Kroto also is working to initiate several new, cutting-edge research projects at FSU. In this endeavor, he described his chemistry-department colleagues as "amazingly helpful and understanding." His current projects include the following:

  • Working with FSU postdoctoral researcher Steven Acqua, graduate teaching assistant Darryl Ventura and associate scholar/scientist Steven Yun in Associate Professor Geoff Strouse’s chemistry research group, Kroto is studying the creation of two-dimensional peptide mats that, he says, could allow for much more dense storage of information on magnetic disks.
  • In conjunction with FSU’s 2006 Robert O. Lawton Professor of Chemistry, Alan Marshall, and graduate teaching assistant Paul Dunk, Kroto is analyzing carbon vapor, which has a number of unusual properties that still are far from being fully understood.
  • With Professor Naresh Dalal, the chairman of FSU’s department of chemistry and biochemistry; Prashant Jain, an FSU graduate teaching assistant; and Professor Tony Cheetham of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Kroto is focusing on the development of two-dimensional nanolayers of magnetic clusters.