Guest Writer - Gastautor - Gast Schrijver

Nanotechnology Education


Universities such as Rice, Harvard, MIT and Cornell offer nanotechnology specializations at the graduate level. A full Ph.D. in nanotechnology is available from the University of Washington. In the UK, Cranfield and Leeds offer a Masters of Science in nanoscience and nanotechnology and in Australia, Flinders and the University of New South Wales offer a Bachelors of Science, just to name a few.

However, is it really feasible or necessary to offer a degree in nanotechnology? Nanotechnology represents the interdisciplinary nexus of all the science and engineering disciplines. What are they going to teach that is not already taught in other science disciplines besides a class introducing new nanomaterials?

How can you teach someone all the scientific disciplines at the graduate level? A student could be in graduate school for over 10 years. A minor in nanotechnology would not be as feasible as a minor in math or composite materials. A nanotechnology degree would demonstrate no more proficiency in understanding nanotechnology than having a comparable level physics or chemistry or engineering degree at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Perhaps it’s time to start teaching science with a completely different and interdisciplinary approach? This is necessary because Nanotechnology is not a specific discipline. It is an integrated way of observing and understanding behavior, all types of behaviors (electronic, chemical, physical, biological, mathematical, etc.), on the nanometer scale. Being able to observe nanoscale phenomenon shows these behaviors can now be seen to be more obviously interrelated. Thus nanotechnology is by nature broad and interdisciplinary because the many branches of science and engineering are interrelated. This phenomenon is already realized by the scientific community before they called it nanotechnology. For instance, chemistry, physics, biology combine to biophysics, biochemistry, and chemical physics or physical chemistry with similar combinations in traditional engineering (i.e. chemical, mechanical engineering to biochemical, biomechanical engineering) disciplines in general. Among those majors are overlaps in types of required first and second year classes…for instance, chemistry, physics, thermodynamics, kinetics, calculus.

Something interesting to note is that many university professors focusing on nanotechnology have teaching titles in two, seemingly to us, different departments. For instance, Naomi Halas is both Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice University. She is also co-founder of Nanospectra Biosciences Inc, which is a nanotech company which could be also classified as a biotech company focusing on using gold nanoshells targeting and killing tumor cells. This is what nanotechnology is all about.

Offering a nanotechnology degree program is a great way to market to and attract potential students who will pay tuition. If it gets students interested in studying nanotechnology, I am not too hard pressed to complain…much. We don’t have to call it a nanotechnology degree or major or minor but it is more attractive.

A Nanotechnology degree program could be a traditional science and or engineering degree program with a focus on nanotechnology. This could mean that you would repackage the course requirements to include other departments.

A possible course of action would be the way Materials Science and Engineering education is approached. Some of the required coursework can be offered in other science and engineering departments and taken alongside those students. Solid state physics, also offered in the physics department, is a typical example.

Even materials science and engineering is an area that has evolved from metallurgy into the interdisciplinary discipline it is now. Materials science traditionally included metals, ceramics, and polymers and also includes composites as it is about combining materials. For a while, the German scientists were saying that nanotechnology is nothing more than materials science. They’re right to some extent if their definition includes biological systems. Materials science does not currently include biochemical systems but that can be subject to change too if we keep an open mind and can draw on basic biology and chemistry training.

Nanotechnology requires a good grasp of all the basic sciences. An undergraduate education that requires all the basic science courses, regardless of major, is a good start. I can already hear the liberal arts majors protesting now. I have seen some success with courses offered as some form of “Chemistry for Architects”. Interestingly enough, some of the leading nanotechnology pundits did not major in either science or math nor are they deep tech with PhD’s. Several of the better well known ones are journalists, such as Stephen Herrara and Howard Lovy, and are quite credible.

Of course, all of us should be already exposed to basic math, chemistry, biology, and physics in our K1-12, shouldn’t we? I was helping two bright K1-6 kids with their math homework when I made some interesting and distressing observations. One was an 8 year old who still didn’t know their times tables and was about to embark on learning division. Upon further examination, this student was still counting on fingers for addition and subtraction. The other time was with an 11 year old who I found out could not understand a simple word problem that had to do with how many rolls of wallpaper would be needed to cover a room with certain dimensions. The student didn’t understand how to apply what they had learned in math to solve a problem. These types of problem solving skills are necessary for understanding science. You cannot do much of the sciences without the math skills. I did not dig any deeper with regard to how well they really knew their sciences because I was afraid to find out how really bad it could be. What is happening to these children who are falling through the cracks in our education system? This was alarming indeed and probably not the first time these issues have been raised.

The basis of understanding nanotechnology is a fundamental understanding of all the sciences and math. We should make sure our K1-12 kids are doing well and better as well as in addition to spending money on higher level nanotechnology education. Without that basic firm foundation, university level nanotechnology education programs will not be effective nor make much more of a difference. In the long run, nanotech education programs targeted towards the K1-12 range to reinforce science and math skills will produce greater results versus those targeted at the graduate and post-graduate levels. If this is not addressed soon, the US will continue to fall behind the rest of the world in child education rankings.

This is not to expect that all children will win science fairs and end up with PhD’s in Physics, but a significant portion of them will become the investment bankers, venture capitalists, sales and marketing people, teachers, etc. who will be the enablers of nanotechnology breakthroughs to society. They will be the ones in the value chain to bring the improved products and lifestyle to be accepted by the consumer market in the future. It is these same people who, with better grasp of basic science and math, will embrace responsible investments in nanotechnology.

A natural curiosity for the world around them is most children’s first introduction to science. My 7, 8 and 9 year old female cousins and I together love visiting the interactive Sony Wonder Technology Lab in midtown Manhattan in New York City and the American Museum of Natural History, especially the Hayden Planetarium. I personally have always loved the dinosaurs and the blue whale at the museum. These children are also taken to the Liberty Science Center fairly regularly by their parents. Of course, as a balance, they also enjoy the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.

The Sony Wonder Technology Lab also happens to be free. Sony has the right idea in terms of long term investment goals in the form of businesses giving back to society and your community. However, on the less altruistic side, Sony recognizes these children are their future customers and an educated consumer is your best customer. This tactic fosters brand loyalty in these future adults having its roots back to when as kids growing up. That type of loyalty is hard to shake as an adult. How often do you think back fondly of your childhood experiences? You may be the type that uses the same toothpaste brand that you used as a kid. Interesting long term marketing strategy. Of course, I happen to like the talking robot that greets you while you’re on line to get in.

So how do we keep these children as adults working and interested in science and less interested in hanging out at the mall? Make it fun. This is not that easy because as adults, sometimes we forget what is considered fun for kids. People’s interest in science in this sense never quite goes away. New technology is constantly sought and being embraced by us all not just to make out life easier but because it can be entertaining. For example, the mobile phone and texting has invaded the schools. Many may not care how it works but they do recognize it is cool technology. CD’s, DVD’s…need I go on?

Personally, I notice that in cooking, which I love to do, has the same scale up issues in terms of heat and mass transfer and fluid dynamics as in designing chemical plants because these processes are nonlinear. If you want to double a recipe, sometimes you cannot just double all the ingredients, the pan size or the cooking time. Similarly, if you want to double your product yield in a chemical plant, you don’t just double the size of the reactors and heat exchangers and pipe diameters and expect to keep your cost to yield ratio minimized or the same. I also marvel that raw egg white turns white when cooking my eggs sunny side up because the albumim proteins are denaturing (unfolding) then irreversibly crosslinking to form an interconnected solid mass with the application of heat. Whipping egg whites causes them to turn white because the whipping action is forcing the proteins to stretch and unfold. This is also denaturing as a result of high mechanical shear from the whipping action. Understanding chemistry and chemical engineering makes me a better cook.

How do we keep that natural curiosity in us alive? The point is that personal interest, challenging work with an appropriate incentive structure will keep these people focused and interested in advancing technology. How different is that from what all of us strive for and what motivates us?

I did say that teachers are enablers in nanotechnology. I meant the K1-12 teachers more than the university level ones. They are an important part of the value chain which influences and shapes children’s thoughts and futures since most of us spend about a 20% of our life in school.

However, often the public school systems are not structured to attract good teachers for our children. The system has evolved into an institution that protects teachers’ jobs instead of insuring that our children are properly educated. Public school systems are compensated by government money based on how many children are enrolled. The more students leaving to private school, the less money the public school systems get. This leads to teachers getting paid less and the good teachers leave because they can’t afford to live. As a result, more students leave. This is a vicious cycle. I recommend overhauling the public school teaching system to make sure the children are learning what they need to know instead of ensuring teachers are protected. Goals and incentives for improving teaching standards need to be appropriate and put into place. Privatization can be an incentive until the public school systems can raise their standards and get their act together. Politically this will not happen until school administrators are brave enough to take a stand against the teacher unions and politics.

In addition, the science industries do not pay as well as other occupations and is still having problems retaining its most gifted students. I’ve seen many a gifted Princeton PhD in Theoretical Physics go to Wall St. modeling derivatives. This is partly because of more attractive salaries but also because of the lack of positions available for them in academia. For even the most gifted students, the attraction to non-science majors is greater so the brain drain is still happening. The same phenomenon is occurring in teaching.

Nanotechnology is about a new era of possibilities and technological breakthroughs to be seen and brought about by this next generation of minds. What is great about nanotechnology is that there lies the hook for kids to like science if it can be conveyed properly. The fact that nanotechnology is here and now and not 20 years down the line can be impressed upon kids. What will interest them more will be to make them understand that they can contribute to the world somehow by introducing new technologies in whatever enabling role they choose. The idea that they can make the difference in how our world is sculpted could be of interest to these seemingly bored and unmotivated children. This boredom and malaise among our children needs to be eradicated and their attention channeled into something productive, challenging and meaningful. One way is via nanotechnology education. The responsibility for conveying, marketing and selling these opportunities lies with us adults.

Perhaps even more basic is our responsibility to teach our children to think. This comes about by encouraging their questions and helping them to find the answers when we cannot answer them. It becomes just as important for the scientists to remember to question themselves since they are human and must remember they can be wrong. Richard Smalley, Nobel Prize winning physicist for discovery of fullerenes or buckyballs, advised young aspiring scientists that “the main thing you need to learn is doubt. Don’t believe anything you’re told without good reason and argument. Doubt underpins science.” The type of doubt Richard Smalley is talking about advances science by making us question everything and everyone; it is a healthy skepticism. Sir Harald Kroto, who also shared the Nobel Prize with Smalley, said, “The key is to ask the right questions and check the answers.”

The interdisciplinary approach, which is the key to the success of nanotechnology, should be actively embraced at the graduate as well as the undergraduate curriculums. No one can be a master of all of nanotechnology. However, at least if students are taught to be open minded about how useful all the other technical disciplines are to a system or problem, then collaborations across disciplines at these levels will make greater strides in science and technology. This attitude needs to start being taught at the K1-12 levels. This approach to nanotechnology education can also be a metaphor how life in general should be approached.

Science is unpredictable. Expect the unexpected.

Dr. Pearl Chin has an MBA from Cornell, a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from University of Delaware's Center for Composite Materials and B.E. in Chemical Engineering from The Cooper Union.

Dr. Chin specializes in advising on nanotechnology investment opportunities. She is also Managing General Partner of Seraphima Ventures and CEO of Red Seraphim Consulting where she advises investment firms and and startup firms on the business strategy of nanotechnology investments. She was Managing Director of the US offices and co-Managing Director of the London offices of Cientifica. Prior to that, she was a Management Consultant with Pittiglio Rabin Todd & McGrath (PRTM)'s Chemicals, Engineered Materials and Packaged Goods group. Dr. Chin will be advising the Cornell University JGSM's student run VC fund, Big Red Venture Fund (BRVF), on investing in nanotechnology.

She is a Senior Associate of The Foresight Institute in the US and was the US Representative of the Institute of Nanotechnology in the UK. She was an alternate finalist for a Congressional Fellowship with the Materials Research Society. She was also a Guest Scientist collaborating with the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) Polymer Division's Electronic Materials Group under the US Department of Commerce. Dr. Chin is a US Citizen born and raised in New York City.

© Pearl Chin 2004


Dr. Pearl Chin