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U.S. education secretary visits suburban school

WHEELING – A suburban Chicago high school – and its unique science lab with cutting-edge microscopes – got a nod from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said during a visit Thursday that students in public high schools nationwide should have similar opportunities.

Wheeling High School officially unveiled the roughly $615,000 nanotechnology lab to coincide with Duncan’s visit. The seven microscopes, which nanotechnology industry experts say would be the envy of a university or major company, are worth $400,000 alone.

“This is pretty amazing to see,” Duncan said after touring the classroom with rows of the computer-like devices. “The world of opportunity that is going to be available for these students going forward is pretty extraordinary ... We want to see a lot more students have these kinds of chances.”

Everything at Wheeling High School – a diverse school where roughly more than half of its 1,800 students are Hispanic – was paid for by district funds and $250,000 state grant. Duncan said the ability for other high schools to have similar labs isn’t too farfetched, as the lab was expensive but not overwhelming.

The lab has been open to students for a few weeks, and school officials used Duncan’s visit to stress the importance of math and science education and job opportunities down the line. The school is in a science pilot program connected to the federal Race to the Top Initiative, which fostered some relationships with the lab but didn’t chip in any funds.

Studying nanotechnology, essentially the science of particles on a very small scale, isn’t unusual at the high school level. But such a lab with this many high-powered machines is.

“None of these are toys,” said Diane Hickey-Davis, sales director for microscope manufacturer Nanoscience Instruments Inc. “This is really industrially focused equipment.”

Evan Sulpar, 17, used a 3-D optical microscope to view a close-up image of a scratch on a cellphone, the black-and-white image appearing as big as a crack in a highway. He said the microscope could be used to help come up with material that either repairs itself or doesn’t scratch so easily.

Classmate Pierce Sourn, also a senior, used an atomic force microscope to look at a strand of hair and wings of an insect. He wants to study medical technology.

“This has opened like a whole new view to me, actually in a much smaller view,” he joked.

Officials said nanotechnology is part of the curriculum at the school, which is about 25 miles from Chicago. Freshman learn about the science in general and by senior year, those interested have a chance to use the lab.

Gov. Pat Quinn, who also toured the lab, called Wheeling’s approach a model to prepare students for careers in growing industries.

He said, “The best way to say nanotechnology is smaller is better.”

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