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Two Year Colleges And The Allure Of "Nano": Understanding Institutional Enthusiasms

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Historical Perspectives for Engineering Education

Tagged Division

Liberal Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.1284.1 - 15.1284.13



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Paper Authors


Amy Slaton Drexel University

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Amy E. Slaton is an associate professor of history at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and director of Drexel's Master's Program in Science, Technology and Society. She holds a PhD in the History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania, and has written on social aspects of standards and instrumentation in American engineering, construction and manufacturing occupations. Her most recent book is _Race, Rigor, and Selectivity in U.S. Engineering: The History of an Occupational Color Line_ (Harvard University Press, 2010).

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Mary Ebeling Drexel University

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Mary Ebeling is assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Culture and Communication at Drexel University. Her scholarly work is concerned with the socio-political implications of the development of new markets in emerging technologies, including nanotechnologies and bioengineered technologies. Currently she is researching the construction of a nanotechnologies-based sector within the Philadelphia region and the associated consequences for workforce development, poverty reduction, global competitiveness, and distributive justice.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Two-Year Colleges and the Allure of "Nano": Understanding Institutional Enthusiasms


As heavy industry and even newer service sector jobs contract in many parts of the United States, regional schemes for economic redevelopment turn increasingly toward high-tech areas, including the many scientific and engineering specialties embodied under the term “nanotechnology.” In southeastern Pennsylvania, a partnership among government agencies, industrial firms and educational institutions has emerged in the last decade to prepare a new workforce for this nanotech sector. The Pennsylvania Nanofabrication Manufacturing Technology (PaNMT) Partnership promises new jobs for un- and underemployed citizens in large numbers. This paper considers the optimistic projections about nanotechnological growth that fuel this initiative. In the face of unclear promise about that sector's future, we consider the consequences of such plans for the most marginalized groups of workers; a sector disproportionately minority in make-up.

To indicate the origins, consequences, and robust nature of such optimism about new technologies in American culture, we compare discourse surrounding the PaNMT Partnership to earlier positive invocations of technology as a means of economic uplift. We consider how planners in Chicago, facing decaying heavy industry and shrinking employment in the 1960s, turned to similarly upbeat depictions of emerging technologies and the post-secondary training of workers for that sector. We identify ways in which those depictions associated disadvantaged Chicagoans with technical jobs below the level of engineering, and indeed, supported such hierarchical distinctions among occupations rather than a turn to more vertically integrated sorts of labor. PaNMT’s vision of widening opportunities in nanomanufacturing and Chicago's approach to computing and other new technologies in the 1960s both have represented confident projections of corporate expansion and economic uplift for disadvantaged citizens. In both settings, economically marginalized groups have been promised employment in technician and other semi-skilled positions in emergent industries. These outlooks have in part been accurate, but in part overly optimistic. Nanotechnology remains, in Pennsylvania, an area of very slow expansion. They also help to distance certain communities from the pursuit of more desirable, engineering occupations. We ask how this optimism regarding a new industrial realm comes to be among educators and policy makers, and what ideologies regarding work, skill and opportunity in technology based industries it may reflect and promote.


This paper examines the role of cultural ideologies in technical workforce development. We look specifically at rationales offered by planners, educators and employers for training programs intended to equip American workers for new industrial employment opportunities. This training, in secondary and post-secondary schools, has been part of the nation's economic development since the late nineteenth century. In every era, educators, economic analysts and policy makers have sought to forecast the productive needs of American industry and to train workers, at many levels of skill and career mobility, to fulfill those labor needs. For generations, planners have

Slaton, A., & Ebeling, M. (2010, June), Two Year Colleges And The Allure Of "Nano": Understanding Institutional Enthusiasms Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--16223

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2010 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015