When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Gov. Pat Quinn visit Wheeling High School today, they will see how the students have been working with some very small things to make a big difference in their education.
The officials will tour Wheeling's new nano technology lab, the first of its kind in a public high school in the country, and participate in a panel discussion about the importance of STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- education.
The lab has a microscope that can magnify up to 45,000 times and other equipment often found only on college campuses or in professional laboratories. While the lab cost $400,000, more than half of it was paid for with a $250,000 grant from the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition, District 214 officials said.
Nanotechnology is a still-developing field of looking at extremely small particles and finding uses that can apply in biology, chemistry, physics and medical research.
About 20 seniors are participating in the first year of an Intro to Nanotechnology class, and already students have said it has influenced their plans.
Biology teacher Lisa Del Muro said that within a few weeks of the school year starting, one of her students decided to change what she wanted to major in and began applying to different colleges.
"It's hard for kids to see potential careers unless they are introduced to them," Del Muro said. "This has opened opportunities for them that they didn't even know were out there."
Other students said now that they've had experience with this lab, they don't want to go to a college that doesn't have it.
"Having this classroom is fantastic. I can see what I want to be doing later on and I was able to pick what colleges I wanted to apply to based on who had similar programs," said senior Nicholas Gross, who will participate in today's panel discussion with Duncan.
Students used the lab Wednesday to look at extreme close-ups of the wing of a butterfly, a strand of hair and a mineral sample.
"It's really fun to look in on things and see them from a different level that no one else gets to see," said senior Eric Kaplan, who will demonstrate some of the equipment for Duncan and Quinn.
Teacher Carol Bouvier said she hopes the government officials take note of what the students are learning and the importance of investing in this new technology.
"We hope (they) see the potential of what these students can go out and do," Bouvier said.
"Even if they don't go into a technology field, we are giving them hands-on experience with this equipment and teaching them about experimenting and collaborating as they learn."
Duncan and Quinn will tour the lab at 11:35 a.m. and will participate in a panel discussion with students and moderated by former Principal Lazaro Lopez at noon. The event is not open to the public.