Pennsylvania tackles nano engineering education

From medicine to materials and manufacturing, nanotechnology is today's watchword but what we do with these new technologies depends on people, and Pennsylvania is leading the way in training nanotechnologists at all levels for all types of nanotech.

The Pennsylvania Nanofabrication Manufacturing Technology Partnership, headquartered in Penn State's Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization (CNEU), includes 2-year and 4-year institutions of higher education across the commonwealth and is a model of an education approach that levels the playing field for all students, according to Dr. Stephen J. Fonash, Professor of Engineering Sciences, holder of the Kunkle Chair, and director, Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization.

The core of the Partnership's nanotechnology education program is a capstone semester of six courses taught at Penn State's University Park campus available to students at 14 community colleges, 8 other Penn State campuses and 14 colleges in Pennsylvania's

State System of Higher Education. Rather than dictate specific prerequisite courses, the students must have completed a college-level chemistry, algebra and composition course, have background knowledge of physics or electrical engineering technology courses, be everyday computer literate and have an acceptable grade point average.

"We would rather see that the students have a specific skill set rather than specific courses," Fonash told attendees at the 2006 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science today (Feb. 18) in St. Louis, Mo.

Institutes of higher education across Pennsylvania have different rates of tuition and most students at community colleges live at home while studying. To create an even playing field, all students pay the tuition rate of their home institution, and funding is available for room and board expenses.

After successful completion of the capstone semester, which uses the facilities of the National Science Foundation's National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network site at Penn State and the CNEU Teaching Cleanroom, individual institutions confer their own 2- or 4-year technology degrees on their own students. Most 2-year institutions offer a Nanofabrication Manufacturing Technology: Associate in Applied Science Degree or similar degree with a few institutions offering a certificate program as well. Four-year institutions offer biology, chemistry and physics students either concentrations, options or minors in nanotechnology manufacturing technology.

Another thing that makes the Pennsylvania program stand out is that it is not focused on one particular aspect of nanotechnology. The broad spectrum of nanotechnology applications from textile and forestry products to electronics, medicine and quantum computing is included.

"The broad approach of the programs also stresses the social, health and environmental issues that are inherent and must be considered due to the far-reaching impact of nanotechnology," says Fonash.

The program began in 1998, with a consortium of Penn State, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and industry. Today, 20 different industry partners from the Commonwealth participate, and more than 40 Pennsylvania companies have hired graduates.

As all pervasive as nanotechnology is becoming, not just engineers, but also technologists and manufacturers need to know about the field. An informed public is also of ever increasing importance.

The partnership runs one- and three-day Nanotech Camps for secondary school children, workshops for educators and curriculum development collaborations with secondary schools. To date, 781 students have attended Nano Camps and 626 educators and industry personnel have completed workshops.

The influence of the program on Pennsylvania is seen in the 344 students who have completed the capstone semester. Of these, 62 percent are employed and only 2 percent are currently seeking jobs, while 36 percent are continuing their educations. Of those employed, 50 percent are working in nanotechnology areas in Pennsylvania with 35 percent working in other fields in Pennsylvania. Only 15 percent left the commonwealth for jobs.

"The impact of nanotechnology is startling with all the new products that make use of the technology, and the impact will only increase," says Fonash. "Nanotechnology education and workforce development are relatively costly, challenging, but necessary. We believe the viable approach to education and workforce development is through the Partnership model."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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