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.

Nanotechnology will affect a range of professions in the coming decade, including food science, sports equipment development, textiles, and forensics, according to a report conducted by the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN).

Nanotechnology salaries range widely, depending on how many years of training a student receives before entering the field.

A student with a two-year associate’s degree can expect to make from $30,000 to $50,000 annually, and students who earn a four-year bachelor’s degree will make from $35,000 to $65,000, according to the NNIN report. A student with a doctorate degree in nanotechnology can earn up to $100,000 a year.

Newberry said bringing nanotechnology lessons to high school students could be the most effective way to increase the number of college students majoring in the field. Hart said there are three high schools interested in using the NanoProfessor curriculum next year, and the company has advisors from prestigious secondary schools who offer advice on how the subject can best be taught to teenagers.

Recruiting high school students to nanotechnology has become a focus for some research universities in recent years. The University of California, Berkeley, partnered with the Center of Integrated Nanomechanical Systems (COINS) in 2007 to create a week-long summertime nanotechnology camp for high school students. Students learn to manipulate nanoparticles, synthesize fluids, and take on other tasks critical to understanding matter at the atomic level.

About 200 high school students studied nanotechnology projects and everyday applications at the University of California, San Diego, in April. Virtual models of molecules showed students how atomic manipulation can improve pharmaceuticals, among other examples.

“It’s absolutely critical to get these concepts into the education system. We never ask students to think about the very, very small. … We always ask them to think about the big, broad picture,” said Newberry, who has 32 students in DCTC’s nanotechnology program.

But “the momentum is growing,” Newberry added, referring to the study of nanotechnology in schools and colleges. “More and more people are understanding exactly what it is … and why it is important.”



UC Berkeley-COINS partnership

Add your opinion to the discussion.