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Nanotechnology Education in the US

Written by Mark Tuominen, Director National Nanomanufacturing Network
February 24, 2011

There is a concerted effort underway to bolster education and training in nanotechnology in the US as an essential component of National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). To achieve substantial and lasting impact this activity necessarily reaches across all audience levels: K12, two-year college, four-year college, graduate degree level, professional, and public. Education and training is critically important to the National Nanomanufacturing Network (NNN) since a trained workforce is the key ingredient of a nation that leads through innovation and manufacturing.

The direct link between education and a thriving national enterprise cannot be over emphasized. The recently passed reauthorization of the America Competes Act (H.R. 5116) underscores the importance of education programs in manufacturing, innovation, and entrepreneurship, as a complement to the vital science technology education and mathematics (STEM) educational activities. To be thoroughly effective, impacting both jobs and the economy, these programs need to be guided with a close partnership between educational institutions, industry, and government. Alongside the Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology (NSET) that has guided the NNI for the last ten years, the new Interagency Working Group on Manufacturing Research and Development coordinated by National Science and Technology Council of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House can play an important leadership role.

E-Beam LabThe National Science Foundation (NSF) currently funds numerous educational efforts in nanotechnology. One notable nano-education initiative that has emerged recently focuses on two-year, community-college education. These programs are relevant to recently students directly out of high school, as well as to individuals already in careers seeking professional development. Industry has an ongoing need for personnel trained at this two-year level to work in manufacturing, as well as corporate research and development. The Nanotechnology Applications and Career Knowledge (NACK) Center, run by Penn State College of Engineering, provides hands-on laboratory education for incumbent workers for the micro- and nanotechnology industry and offers professional development programs for secondary and postsecondary educators. The NACK center provides national coordination of micro- and nanofabrication workforce development programs and activities through its website. Many other two-year programs focused on nanotechnology exist in the US, including the Nano-Link network of technical community colleges in the midwest. Dakota County Technical College, which coordinates the Nano-Link network, was the first college in the US to offer a two-year multi-disciplinary AAS Degree in NanoScience Technology.

For a longer period of time, universities and colleges across the nation have implemented an array of nanotechnology education programs and curricula for students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Much of this has been seeded through funding from the NSF, either as education activities associated with nanotechnology research centers and networks, or as stand-alone educational programs. Each of the 18 NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers (NSECs) provide nano-specific courses and research training for both undergrad and grad students. During the last decade, these centers have built up a strong portfolio of nanoscale science and engineering curricula. A considerable amount of undergraduate training takes place through summer Research Education for Undergraduate (REU) activities and other activities throughout the year. Graduate research education is an integral part of an NSF center’s mission. The unique laboratory facilities for making and characterizing nanoscale materials and devices at the NSECs are a foundation upon which professional careers are launched. Frequent interactions with industrial scientists, engineers and executives provide students a pathway for collaboration and jobs. Similarly the university-industry interactions through workshops and training sessions provide a means for industry scientists to learn of recent developments in university research and emerging techniques in nanotechnology. Similarly, the NSF’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs) are substantial centers providing education and training. Many of these MRSECs have important components in nanotechnology research, as nanomaterials are integrated through much of materials science today. A number of Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) programs exist that a focus specifically on nanotechnology education. These programs provide graduate training that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries and requires teamwork so that students can become leaders in science and engineering.

Several nanotechnology networks have emerged over the last decade, each of which provide education, training, professional development and industry-university partnership opportunities. The Network for Computational Nanotechnology created NanoHUB, which besides being a leading NSF cyberinfrastructure project focused on simulation, also provides a wealth of nanoscience educational resources including lectures, courses, and simulation tools. The NanoEd portal, hosted at Northwestern University, similarly provides curricula for formal nanoscience education. The National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), which operates major research user facilities at 14 universities across the nation, also provides important training and education opportunities. The NNIN Education Portal is a place to find information about facilities training for graduate students, undergradate students, professionals and others. The NNIN organizes seminars and international workshops that provide training in new nanotech research and nanofabrication techniques. The National Nanomanufacturing Network (NNN) provides many workshops geared specifically toward the advancement of nanomanufacturing and cooperation between universities, companies, and government labs. Centers affiliated with the NNN provide seminars, courses and training sessions with a focus on commercially-scalable nanomanufacturing processes and related techniques. The NNN’s informatics project, InterNano, serves as an information resource on nanomanufacturing to students and professionals alike.

ImageThe NSECs and other centers also provide educational outreach to K12 students and teachers. For example, the Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst provides an annual Summer Institute that provides hands-on nanoscience curricula for K12 science teachers, and the Center for Templated Synthesis and Assembly at the Nanoscale at the University of Wisconsin Madison provides numerous teacher training opportunities. A major project in informal nanoscience education is NISEnet – a network representing partnerships between science museums and universities across the U.S. NISEnet provides many avenues and opportunities for nanoscience education to students and the general public. One major event is NanoDays -- an annual nationwide festival of educational programs about nanoscale science and engineering. This spring event, which occurs at over 200 locations across the country from Puerto Rico to Hawaii, introduces the public to the basic tenets of nanotechnology and its potential impact on the future.

Since many equipment items for fabrication and characterization of nanoscale materials and devices are quite expensive, some companies have started to develop lower-cost equipment that would be suitable for academic teaching laboratories. NanoProfessor is a product line from the Northwestern University spin-off company NanoInk that provides atomic force microscopy (AFM), dip-pen lithography, and other capabilities at a cost that is substantially lower than that of full scale research instrumentation. The availability of USB optical microscopes and other emerging equipment opens of new avenues of nanoeducation curricula for K12, two-year colleges, science museums, colleges and universities.

Although there are many more educational activities, funded through various federal and state programs, that could be discussed, one can see that there is an important critical mass of nanoscale science and engineering education programs taking place in the U.S. It is important that a new wave of education and training in best practices to translate this knowledge into products complement it, specifically education in 21st century innovation, entrepreneurship and manufacturing.

Last updated: March 15, 2012

DOI: 10.4053/fe494-110224

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Tags: Education, workforce training, America COMPETES

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