Discovery Magazine

How to Create a Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Minor Program

Creating a Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Minor

Jim Brenner (Chemical Engineering), Kurt Winkelmann (Chemistry), and Joel Olson (Chemistry), Florida Tech, Melbourne, FL 32901, 321-749-3437

Our goal is to develop the first nanotechnology program in the world that features multiple lab courses, because most students learn this field "hands on." New Nanotechnology Lab II and Materials Characterization Lab courses have just been pilot-tested to complement existing Nanotechnology and Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering lecture courses and a freshman Nanotechnology Lab I course. Both courses feature crash courses on each instrument, followed by a mentoring transition, with grading rewards based on independence. Now that these new courses are complete, we have contracted with a publisher to write a nanotechnology lab manual that will target faculty wishing to inexpensively establish nanotechnology programs.

This program addresses the need to develop more nanotechnology lab courses. Our experience shows that students learn best "hands on." Lab courses involving materials characterization using electron and scanning probe microscopes are rare, particularly for undergrads. This is due to fear that such students will damage the equipment and because of the difficulty justifying buying expensive equipment for teaching purposes. The Materials Characterization Lab course has been developed to help faculty teach such courses with minimal equipment damage and downtime, and with enough experiments to justify such large equipment purchases.

The Nanotechnology Lab II course adds SEM, TEM, STM and AFM characterization of nanomaterials made using literature syntheses, as well as several new syntheses. In the Nanotechology Lab II class, students synthesized CdS and CdSe quantum dot semiconducting nanoparticles and saw how they could be used in biomedical imaging, and made phosphorescent europia-doped yttria and saw how its glow-in-the-dark properties were a function of how it was heat-treated. They also made metallic and molybdenum carbide nanoparticle catalysts, polymer/silica structural nanocomposites, and highly porous zeolites (synthetic clays) that are used in numerous applications ranging from upgrading of crude oil to solid laundry detergents. Several experiments focused on the nanoelectronics industry such as a) the use of photolithographic processes to make microfluidic channels used in lab-on-a-chip biodiagnostic screening devices; b) the synthesis of carbon nanotubes and nickel nanowires-the wires in the next, much faster generation of computers; and even c) synthesis and testing of polymer/carbon nanocomposite sensing elements in an electronic nose.

Until now, no one could watch the steps in self-assembly or self-destruction as they happened. With these new microscopy methods, students tracked the very start of growth of ammonium hydrogen phosphate (AHP) crystals that many kids have made for elementary school science fairs; the growth of zeolitic clay crystals; the growth and misfolding of proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease; and the destruction of bone from excessive acid concentrations associated with gouty arthritis.

The Materials Characterization Lab course addresses the need to advance students from rookie to independent status on materials analytical equipment quickly without significant cost or downtime. This course focused on transitioning students from beginners to being capable of teaching the next generation of students. This class was composed of some lectures, some hands-on demonstrations, passing some online testing prior to using the equipment, mentoring under a graduate student, and finally, passing a hands-on practical test in front of a professor and a grad student.

Probably the most challenging topic to teach is self-assembly, and the biggest barriers to course adoption elsewhere are the capital equipment cost and the fear of large maintenance cost and downtime. By developing numerous experiments that emphasize usage of STM and AFM to study self-assembly in a way that minimizes equipment risk, we believe that we have overcome all but the initial capital equipment cost hurdle and provided enough experiments to justify even that high initial cost. Lessons learned from this experience are as follows:

1) For the Materials Characterization Lab, establishing a grading system that emphasizes student independence is sufficient to get the students to progress.

2) Crash courses at the beginning of the semester are an effective means to get students past the intimidation barrier.

3) Instant communication to students when samples on pieces of equipment are obtaining particularly good images is time well spent.

4) Students do a particularly effective job at teaching each other, when such teaching helps them progress toward an A. This helps satisfy faculty's desire for the higher levels of learning in Bloom's taxonomy of learning.

5) Having students do as many syntheses and as much characterization as possible early in the semester is the best approach. Students are willing to give time early in the term, but get distracted late in the term.

6) Students found development of troubleshooting flowcharts for STM and AFM particularly helpful.

This work was funded by NSF NUE Grant #0939355.