By Corinna Wu
Photo left: A microgear mechanism on
the palm of a hand. The high-precision cogs are made of nickel
to 150 microns in thickness, and were created at the Wisconsin
Center for Applied Microelectronics at the
University of Wisconsin. Photo right: Colored
scanning electrol micrograph of microcogs forming a microgear
mechanism. This could be used in microscopic sensors to detect
acceleration, pressure, flow rate, and the presence of certain
chemicals in a fluid.
NANOTECHNOLOGY OFFERS GREAT PROMISE
FOR IMPROVING HEALTH AND CLEANING UP THE ENVIRONMENT, AND
SCHOOLS ARE SCRAMBLING TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO TEACH IT.
the word "microscopic" is no longer sufficient
to describe all things smaller than the eye can see. In some
cases, only "nanoscopic" will do. It's not
hyperbole: Scientists and engineers know how to build and
manipulate structures smaller than a millionth of a millimeter
in size. At that scale, tiny bits of material—whether
they be gold or gallium arsenide—behave differently
than identical materials do in bulk. The chemical and physical
properties change, requiring researchers to think in new ways
about compounds that they've understood for decades.
And so it has been for educators too, thinking about how
to teach the new field of nanotechnology to students. So far,
the approaches taken have been as varied as the schools themselves.
Some offer nanotechnology on a modest scale, involving students
in individual classes and research projects. Others have developed
entirely new degree programs, pulling in faculty and students
from multiple departments. The National Science Foundation
has funded many of these educational efforts through its Nanoscale
Science and Engineering Program.
According to the NSF, the existing nanotechnology workforce
numbers around 20,000, and the worldwide need will reach 2
million by 2015. One thing is certain: Industry has already
expressed a desire for trained workers at all levels, and
states see nanotechnology as an area of investment that will
make them economically competitive. And in a show of federal
support, President George W. Bush signed a law last December
authorizing $3.7 billion of funding for nanotechnology research
and development over the next four years.
Nanotechnology bridges many disciplines: chemistry, physics,
materials science, engineering, biology, and medicine. This
has challenged universities to break down barriers between
departments and open new educational opportunities to students.
It has also spurred them to include discussion of the societal
and ethical implications of nanotechnology research—knowledge
necessary to be a well-rounded scientist or engineer in the
It's a hot field all right, and it's important
to note that in terms of substance, there haven't been
any major accomplishments in research so far. It is widely
believed that there will be, however. And there's also
the risk that researchers may label their proposals nanotechnology—when
in fact it's a stretch—to take advantage of money
that's fairly plentiful.
Many schools have technical courses in nanotechnology, available
to upper-level undergraduates and graduate students. But this
fall, Rice University is offering a new introductory class
for first- and second-year undergrads—its first nanotechnology
course aimed at a general audience. Kristen Kulinowski, executive
director of public policy and education for Rice's Center
for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, designed
the class along with Chris Kelty, an assistant professor of
anthropology. It focuses on four broad themes: nanomedicine
and nanobiology, nanotechnology devices, impact on human health
and the environment, and issues of scale-up and manufacturing.
The course introduces students to the essential technical
content of the field but also aims to put those facts into
context. "The context part is about putting the enterprise
of science, engineering, and technology development into its
social perspective," Kulinowki says. "So it is
presenting issues of how science is funded, how scientists
talk about the future vs. how science fiction writers talk,
issues of patenting and intellectual property, and of course,
Nanoparticles are small enough to enter cells, which gives
them the opportunity to interfere with the cells' biochemical
machinery. They can absorb ultraviolet light and trigger chemical
reactions. Scientists and engineers want to harness these
properties to deliver drugs, clean up pollution, and improve
consumer products, like sunscreen. But they also worry that
nanoparticles can have unexpected effects on the environment
and human health, especially if they're used in medicine.
Kulinowski expects that the class will draw students from
the humanities and social sciences as well as those with a
scientific bent. The class is cross-listed under chemistry
and anthropology, and satisfies university distribution requirements
in science and social science. "Nanotechnology is stimulating
a lot of very interesting discussions and debates that involve
ethicists, philosophers, ecologists, economists," Kulinowski
says. The government and funding agencies have recognized
that the societal and ethical implications of this new field
must be explored right alongside research in the lab. So if
these issues are being discussed and debated by experts, she
reasons, "it makes a whole lot of sense that we should
be doing that in the classroom."
An introductory level class such as Rice's can influence
students to major in subjects they didn't consider before.
But those wanting a major in nanotechnology will have a difficult
time doing so. According to Carl Batt, a professor of food
science and co-director for advancing education at Cornell
University's Nanobiotechnology Center, few schools offer
undergraduate majors in nanotechnology. Four-year, research
institutions generally encourage students to major in one
of the traditional scientific or engineering disciplines and
earn a minor or concentration in nanotechnology by taking
electives or doing focused research.
The idea is to allow students to major in whatever interests
them and to make sure they have a strong foundation in chemistry,
physics, biology, or engineering. For professors, there are
also practical reasons: Batt says that establishing a new
major is "a bureaucratic quagmire that would probably
take you 10 years to sort your way through."
MAKING IT A MINOR
Of course, establishing a minor is no small task either.
Penn State University began planning for a minor in nanotechnology
two years ago, says Stephen Fonash, professor of engineering
sciences and director of the Nanofabrication Facility. The
program just started this fall. "At Penn State, as is
the case with most universities, you have to have approval
of the college, the university senate—so it's
a long process," he explains.
earn the minor, sophomores and juniors take required overview
courses and then choose "cafeteria-style" from
higher-level classes in a variety of departments, even agriculture.
Fonash expects students with a range of academic interests
to take part. One big logistical challenge is giving all these
undergrads hands-on lab experience, since a lot of nanotechnology
work is done in a clean-room environment. Preparing to work
in a clean room involves a lot more than just putting on a
pair of safety goggles (see sidebar). As such, Fonash says,
"The lab component is significant, but evolving."
After getting a bachelor's degree, many will join the
growing workforce of trained nanotechnologists, already in
demand by industry. Some graduates will continue on for an
advanced degree to better prepare for a career in the field.
Rice University, as well as other schools, has been building
on its strong history of research by offering a professional
master's program in nanoscale physics. The university
established the program in 2001 with a grant from the Alfred
P. Sloan Foundation.
According to program coordinator Terry Pack, the professional
master's is meant for students who want training beyond
a bachelor's but don't want to pursue a Ph.D.
In the sciences—unlike in engineering—it's
unusual for a university to enroll a student interested only
in a master's. The degree has historically been awarded
as a "consolation prize" to students who don't
pass their qualifying exams, Pack says. "The Sloan Foundation
wanted to change this perception, because it dissuades people
from gaining an advanced education in science and technology.
So these professional science master's [programs] were
created to be a terminal degree."
The program in nanoscale physics includes hard-core science
classes—nanostructures, methods of experimental physics,
computational physics—but also classes in management,
science policy, and ethics. Then, students do a three- to
six-month internship to apply what they've learned.
"They're not in a traditional Ph.D. program that's
more of a narrow-focused education," Pack says. "It's
a broader education, so you can better apply it to the industry
and a business environment." The degree has been compared
to an M.B.A., designed to train people who can usher the discoveries
made in the lab into the real world.
FROM THE GROUND UP
Pushing new courses and degree programs through a university's
administrative machinery requires patience and perseverance.
But the University at Albany in New York has accepted the
challenge and taken it one step further: Earlier this year,
it established a brand-new College of Nanoscale Sciences and
Engineering. (It's a graduate school; Students are expected
to get a firm grounding in a traditional discipline before
enrolling for an advanced degree.) The college operates out
of Albany Nanotech, a complex of both public and private research
and development labs.
In creating the entire academic program from scratch, the
university structured the college to reflect nanotechnology's
interdisciplinary nature and strategic economic importance.
Faculty belong to one or more "constellations"—think
tanks constructed around themes—instead of traditional
departments. "That encourages this interdisciplinary
way of thinking and exchange of ideas between the different
disciplines," says Alain Kaloyeros, president of Albany
Nanotech. "We didn't want to create departments
that turned out to be silos." And instead of a dean
who reports to the provost, the college has Kaloyeros, who
reports directly to the university president, thus eliminating
one layer of bureaucracy.
He also serves on the board that advises New York Governor
George Pataki on the state's investments in science
and technology. In 2001, Pataki spearheaded the creation of
six Centers of Excellence at public universities across the
state, each revolving around one key subject area. The University
at Albany, whose center focuses on nanotechnology and nanoelectronics,
acts as the hub.
New York has contributed $350 million to Albany's comprehensive
enterprise in education, research, and technology deployment,
Kaloyeros says, and three times that support has come from
private investments. "The center started with research,
and then it evolved between 2001 and 2004, adding the educational
For Albany, investing in cutting-edge facilities is part
of a strategy to attract top-notch students and faculty who
might otherwise gravitate toward better-known universities.
"If we decided to compete with MIT and Stanford up front…we
couldn't," says Kaloyeros. "So we decided
to play it in reverse—create the most exciting and state-of-the-art
sandbox…and then go out and attract them."
Like New York, Pennsylvania has also invested millions in
nanotechnology education, with the hope of making the state
competitive in this burgeoning field. Companies that deal
in electronics, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals are eager to
hire employees at all levels, especially people with associate
degrees qualified to work as technicians.
That's why Penn State has been collaborating with all
of the two-year institutions in Pennsylvania—more than
30 schools—to prepare students for careers in nanotechnology.
Funded as an NSF Advanced Technological Education Center,
the university developed a kit for teachers at community colleges
to enrich their regular classes. The kit gives students hands-on
experience with the materials of nanotechnology—carbon
nanotubes or gold nanoparticles, for example.
Students then spend a semester on the Penn State campus in
an intensive "capstone" experience, designed to
consolidate and focus what they've learned. They take
six courses and train in Penn State's nanofabrication
facilities. Yet they continue to pay the tuition of their
local college, with the state making up the difference. "Our
educational philosophy is not to train students for one industry
but to train them so they can go from industry to industry
to industry—to give them a toolbox that they can use
the rest of their career," engineering professor Fonash
So far, 140 students have graduated from the program, many
with associate degrees in nanotechnology. And they've
had no trouble finding work, according to Fonash. "All
of the major pharmaceutical companies in the Philadelphia
area have one of these graduates."
Demand from industry is what drives these educational collaborations.
States that have strong research universities, local colleges,
and a high-tech business community find that they have the
essentials to forge these partnerships. The Penn State project
is supported by state economic development initiatives as
well as by federal grants from NSF. If the state didn't
pay the tuition difference between the local community colleges
and Penn State, Fonash says, the semester-long capstone experience
would be out-of-reach for many of the students.
Money is flowing into nanotechnology research from all sectors,
public and private. And with funding going to education as
well, industry hopes that the workforce will grow in step
with their businesses—proving that the very small has
potential to create big things.
Corinna Wu is a freelance writer based in Washington,