After visiting Wheeling High School's new nano technology laboratory Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he wants to figure out how to replicate the program at schools across the country.
Duncan was joined by Gov. Pat Quinn and Congressman Brad Schneider in a tour of the nano lab before participating in a panel discussion with students and former principal Lazaro Lopez about the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and thinking beyond high school.
"What you guys are doing here has very significant national implications," Duncan said during the panel.
"To see the kinds of opportunities these students have is amazing. It's inspiring to me," he said. "My experience in nanotechnology is nonexistent, but I do know that this is where the jobs of the future are."
Duncan said between 200,000 and 2 million nano tech workers will be needed in the next few decades.
To put nano in simpler words, Quinn said, "smaller is better."
The study of nano technology looks at extremely small particles -- one of the microscopes in the Wheeling laboratory can look at an image that has been magnified 45,000 times -- and uses them in fields ranging from physics to mechanical engineering to medicine.
Renovations and equipment for the Wheeling lab cost $615,000, with $250,000 coming from a state grant. The equipment -- more typically found on college campuses or in professional labs -- makes the Northwest suburban school the first U.S. public high school to have a program of its kind, district officials said.
Senior Venessa Reyes said the STEM curriculum and the nano technology opportunities have helped her figure out a direction for her future.
"I wanted to go to college, but I had no idea how I would make that possible or what to study," said Reyes, who will be a first generation college student next year.
"Some of these young people come from families who may not have the most money or the most opportunities, so this will transform their families for generations to come," Duncan said.
Wheeling High School's student body is more than 50 percent minority and more than 40 percent are classified as low-income, according to the school's state report card.
"Going to college has never been more important and it's never been more expensive," Duncan said. "We have a lot of hard work to do. The President is very concerned and so am I. We have to do more to make college more accessible and more affordable. Right now far too many middle class families are starting to think college isn't for them, that it's for rich folks, and that's a huge problem."
Duncan said he hopes to replicate what he saw in Wheeling, sometimes on a smaller scale depending on what schools can afford.
"This is absolutely the cutting edge. You are way, way at the forefront," he said. "The question is now how do we accelerate the pace of change. How do we go from Wheeling today to 10, 100 or 1,000 programs like this across the country? I don't have an easy answer for that, but we're working on it."