PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo NOVEMBER 2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 3
tech view
Think Big, Teach Small
By Mary Kathleen Flynn


Mary Kathleen FlynnThe nascent field of nanotechnology (the manufacturing of materials and devices on an extremely small scale) has begun delivering exciting new discoveries at a rapid clip. Meanwhile, universities are speeding to develop interdisciplinary methods for teaching students about nanotechnology, which breaks down the traditional barriers among chemistry, physics, materials science, engineering, biology and medicine.

The usually slow summer months brought a couple of interesting nanotech developments. Mechanical engineers at the University of Arkansas and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln announced Electric Pen Lithography (EPL), a method for carving arrays of tiny holes only 10 nanometers wide into sheets of gold. Its creators hope EPL will have applications for crafting single DNA detection devices, such as nanopores and nanoscale interconnects in biological and semiconducting devices, molecular sieves for protein sorting and nanojets for fuel and drug delivery. Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia announced an efficient source of energy involving nanoscale particles that take only microseconds to create and can be developed on a surface as small as a microchip. The micro-fabricated devices, coated with the energetic material, are capable of producing tens of joules of energy in a fraction of a second, which means among other things that they have the potential to be used in batteries for portable electronics.

As the field of nanotechnology grows, so do the methods for teaching it to engineering students. For example, at the University of Missouri-Columbia, there are several new graduate- and senior undergraduate-level courses in the area of nanomedicine, materials science, nanoelectronics and nanophotonics, says Shubhra Gangopadhyay, who holds the Lapierre chair in the university’s electrical and computer engineering department. “Since nanotechnology requires interdisciplinary research and education, we envisage that several interdisciplinary courses will be taught jointly by faculty from various disciplines in the near future.”

Interdisciplinary is the name of the game at the University of California, Merced, the newest campus of the University of California system, which opens this fall to 1,000 students. UC-Merced does not have traditional academic departments, so undergraduate degree programs draw upon faculty from a variety of disciplines. Nanotechnology will play an important role in several engineering degrees that UC- Merced will offer, beginning with a bioengineering degree this fall that will emphasize nanobioengineering. Instruction in nanotechnology will extend to students outside of engineering at UC-Merced. For example, freshmen from all disciplines will take a core course that includes a lecture introducing them to the concepts of nanotechnology and its potential impact on society and the environment. A cross-disciplinary graduate group focusing on nanoscale science and engineering has also formed.

Thanks to a National Science Foundation Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center grant that UC-Merced is partnering on with UC-Berkeley, Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology, students will participate in teaching and research activities that are nanoscale-oriented, says Valerie Leppert, engineering faculty member and principal investigator for the UC-Merced portion of the grant. “The grant provides funding for student internships in faculty labs conducting nanotechnology research, development of nanotechnology educational software by students and faculty and summer internships in nanodevice fabrication.”

Indeed, some of UC-Merced’s entering freshman engineering students spent their summer vacations developing an interactive nanotechnology exhibit at the Castle Science and Technology Center in Atwater, Calif. Now that’s something to write home about.

Mary Kathleen Flynn has covered technology for more than 15 years for a variety of media outlets, including Newsweek, the New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, CNN and MSNBC..


OPENING DOORS - By Alice Daniel
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TECH VIEW: Think Big, Teach Small - By Mary Kathleen Flynn
CIRCLE OF SUPPORT - Engineering schools are developing programs to help their female students fit in. - By Margaret Loftus
BOOK REVIEW: The World Is Flat - By Robin Tatu
RESEARCH: A More Perfect Union - By Gary S. Was
ON CAMPUS: A Human Touch - By Lynne Shallcross
LAST WORD: All in the Family - By Gary A. Gabriele and Jennifer Currey


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