Nanotechnology program targets schools

NanoProfessor comes with professional equipment, including microscopes used in labs.
NanoProfessor comes with professional equipment, including microscopes used in labs.

The nanotechnology industry will employ an estimated 2 million people worldwide by 2015, and with President Obama calling on colleges to ready students for the field, an Illinois-based company has introduced a program designed to teach the complex subject to undergraduates.

NanoInk introduced the 12-week learning system, called NanoProfessor, in May, and a pilot program will be launched at Minnesota’s Dakota County Technical College (DCTC) in January 2010, said Dean Hart, NanoInk’s executive vice president.

Deb Newberry, chair of DCTC’s nanoscience department, said most nanotechnology curricula are “written by Ph.D.s for Ph.D.s,” relying mostly on intricate, complicated simulations of abstract concepts. But that’s not the case with NanoProfessor.

The curriculum includes lesson plans, a textbook, and equipment such as atomic and LED (light-emitting diode) fluorescent microscopes–tools that students would use in the nanotechnology workplace. Colleges can buy the entire toolset for $300,000. NanoProfessor also helps market the program and attract students.

“It’s difficult to bring [nanotechnology courses] to the undergraduate level,” Newberry said. “And NanoProfessor builds a suspension bridge between the concept and the hands-on experience.”

Nanotechnology is the study of matter on a molecular level, employing concepts from biology, physics, and chemistry. Advocates say nanotechnology will be key in developing new electronics, medicines, and environmentally friendly materials used to make everyday products ranging from cars to sunscreen. The concept was first introduced in 1959, and current research includes federally funded studies of nanomedicine, which could maximize the effectiveness of medical treatments.

The push for growing America’s nanotechnology sector was underscored last month when President Obama urged community and technical colleges to focus on the economic imperative of cutting-edge scientific training during an address at Hudson Valley Community College in New York.

“The ability of new industries to thrive depends on workers with the knowledge and know-how to contribute in those fields. Yet today, our primary and secondary schools continue to trail many of our competitors, especially in key areas like math and science,” Obama said.  “From biotechnology to nanotechnology, from the development of new forms of energy to research into treatments of ancient diseases, there is so much potential to change our world and improve our lives, while creating countless jobs across America.”

Before campus officials can push for more nanotechnology training, Hart said, educators need tools for teaching students the subject, which is not widely offered in higher education.

“When the president gets behind something and makes a declaration that we need to lead in innovation … it’s clearly important,” he said. “But you need to lead in education for the innovation to come about.”

The complex concepts of nanotechnology usually grab undergraduate students’ interest, Hart said, but offering access to equipment used in high-tech laboratories could draw more young people into a field expected to be a growing part of the economy.

“Show students how to build nanoscale structures, and you can launch their careers,” he said.

Denny Carter

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