Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Curriculum! NSF Grant Enables UC to Bring Nano to the Undergraduates

Unlike in the business world, “NSF” for a university means money in the bank: $175,000 spread over two years, starting September 2005, with significant matching funds from UC.

“There were 87 proposals of which 12 were funded, including ours,” says Tom Mantei, Interim Director of UC’s Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. “We want to bring this subject to sophomores and juniors in the Colleges of Engineering and Arts & Sciences.” UC is ranked by Small Times magazine as #2 in the nation for undergraduate nano education.

In general, science is different on the nanometer scale (a nanometer is about 40 billionths of an inch). Properties not seen on a macroscopic scale now become important — such as quantum mechanical effects. In the nano-world, focus is directed on individual atoms and molecules whose properties are different from those materials with large (“bulk”) dimensions. By using an individual molecule’s properties, researchers can engineer structures where molecules have self-assembled in certain well-defined ways in order to produce new materials with new properties. (Learn more about UC



“We realized that the way in which we educate our undergraduate students has hardly changed over the past 150 years,” Mantei says. An undergraduate in engineering, physics or chemistry usually chooses within the first year the area of study on which he or she will concentrate.

“Students then delve more deeply into their particular areas over the following years, but without developing an understanding of closely associated areas. No real attempt is made to show students how things have changed fundamentally at the interfaces between these disciplines, and how they interact.”

“Nanoscale science and technology is a revolutionary new area that occurs really at the interfaces between basic science and engineering areas,” says Leigh Smith, professor of physics. “It happens because a number of people collaborate on different aspects of the same problem. We come to the particular problem with our own language and way of looking at things, and hope to synthesize something new. Nano is definitely an area that is pushing rapidly toward a breakdown of the usual divisions between the sciences and engineering. Thus you have people in electrical engineering who have to understand molecular biology and biochemistry, and people in chemistry who have to understand the technical limitations of engineering a working device, and at the same time understanding molecular genetics. And people in physics who have to begin to understand the ability to synthesize new small objects in a bottom-up approach and how this affects the basic electronic properties of the materials. This course is an attempt to get students to realize how the disciplines are changing in their midst.”

The UC group proposed a new sequence of lecture and laboratory courses directed toward both scientists and engineers, to expose undergraduate students to the very real changes that are occurring at the interfaces between the historical disciplines. The proposed lecture courses provide an overview of nanoscale science, engineering and related applications.

“We also include lectures on the societal and ethical implications of nanoscale research,” says Mantei. “The laboratory modules give a hands-on experience, including synthesis of nanoparticles and nanotubes and subsequent characterization. The purpose of this project is to formally integrate the teaching of nanoscience and technology into the educational program of engineering and science students. The immediate impact of this project will therefore be to provide undergraduate students from the Colleges of Engineering and Arts & Sciences with a substantial comprehension of nanoscale science and technology.”

“This is a tremendous opportunity for us to incorporate information from one of the most rapidly growing areas of science and technology into our undergraduate curriculum,” says Frank Gerner, associate dean for undergraduate and administrative affairs in the College of Engineering. “Normally these concentration areas first reside within the research domain, perhaps migrate into graduate education, have an impact upon industry, make their way into textbooks and then eventually are taught to undergraduates. This is an opportunity to expose a significant number of undergraduate students in engineering, chemistry and physics to cutting-edge science and technology.”

“This world of very small dimensions does not connect readily with everyday experience,” says Mantei. “In particular, undergraduate students receive little exposure to nanoscale science and technology in their curriculum. Indeed, they may learn more about the ‘nano-world’ from reading the popular press than in their formal programs.”

To be sure, nanotechnology encompasses many fields, as one might expect. But philosophy?

“Although the Philosophy Department only plays a minor role in this grant project, we’re excited to develop another connection with science and engineering departments and programs,” says John Bickle, chair of the Philosophy Department. “Most of our interdisciplinary connections so far have been with biology, neuroscience and psychology. This is our first serious project with physics, chemistry and engineering (outside of computer science).”

 “From a philosophy of science perspective, nanoscience and technology appears poised to develop into another major ‘scientific revolution,’ akin perhaps to the development and influence of molecular genetics in biology and biotechnology — only now we get glimpses of such a development in the early stages,” says Bickle. “From an ethical standpoint, it raises a host of thorny issues about privacy (given the ways that nanodevices might be used to gather and transmit information, and informed consent (within some of its medical applications). Finally, it raises interesting philosophical issues about the relationships between basic science, engineering applications and technological developments.”

The proposal group is composed of the following faculty:

  • John Bickle, Philosophy
  • Frank Gerner, Engineering
  • Suri Iyer, Chemistry
  • Thomas Mantei, Engineering
  • Mark Schulz, Engineering
  • Vesselin Shanov, Engineering
  • Leigh Smith, Physics
  • Andrew Steckl, Engineering


Read more about nanotechnology at UC:


Stay tuned for more big developments in tiny areas!

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