SANTA CLARA, Calif. Nanotechnology is taking on a life of its own, inexorably changing electronics in the same way as the transition from tubes to integrated circuits. But the educational community has yet to respond, and research officials are concerned that the fledgling industry will not grow unless nanotechnology becomes a standard part of the U.S. physics and chemistry curriculum.
Academics and research leaders aired their concerns at a workshop devoted to nanotechnologies held here last week in conjunction with the DesignCon 2003 conference. Some asked for nanotechnology to be introduced in a preliminary stage to students at the K-12 level.
It is especially important to revise technical education in the United States because other countries especially in Europe, but also in Japan, Taiwan, Korea and China are vying to buy up the nanotechnology intellectual property (IP) that's being developed in the United States, said James Murday, director of the Nanotechnology Coordinating Office, a government agency affiliated with the National Science Foundation.
"What I can foresee is that Japan, which is scooping up IP in this area like no other nation, will find ways to commercialize devices and give us a run in the same manner that they did in the 1980s in the semiconductor field," he warned.
If nanotech is to make a dent in the economy, undergraduate curriculums will need to change drastically. "We need 5,000 college students graduating every year [with knowledge of nanotechnology] in order for the projected value-added market to reach $1 trillion by 2015," said Murday. That $1 trillion market will consist of nanodevices but also of devices and systems with some kind of embedded nanotechnology that increases their value, he said.
"There is a disconnect between the curriculum programs and the career goals in our education system," said Cornell University professor Sandip Tiwari, another speaker at DesignCon's full-day NanoEngineering TecForum. Tiwari termed nanotechnology a paradigm shift as significant as "those of the vacuum tube going to the transistor and then to solid-state electronics and finally to the integrated circuit." In such a climate, he said, "we cannot afford to have the current 60 to 70 percent undergraduate attrition rate of college students who switch from science and engineering to the arts fields."
Tiwari believes that the entire physics and engineering educational curriculum needs to change and that the four-year undergraduate programs must be expanded to at least five years. Referring to the current hectic pace of change, Tiwari exclaimed, "Today, the faster you go, the 'behinder' you get. We need to find a way to get research experience into education early."
As part of one of the six NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering centers, the Nanobiotechnology Center at Cornell has an educational mission to foster a lifelong interest in science and technology by teaching people of all ages about the nanoworld. Four focus groups participate in the center's programs, including teachers, students in grades K-12, undergraduate and graduate students, and the general public. Part of the center's K-12 mission is to integrate concepts in biology, chemistry and engineering into national and state education standards.
For its part, the National Science Foundation is leading the pack to make nanotechnology the buzzword in the beginning of this decade, just as the Internet was at the start of the 1990s. As such it sponsors technical forums to spread the word on nanotech and to get feedback from the community interested in participating in the nanotechnology revolution. At the NanoEngineering TecForum, the NSF was trying to attract design engineers to "illuminate areas of critical interest and to help separate hype from reality."
According to NSF's Murday, close to 1 percent of the federal R&D budget is being spent on nanotechnologies. Some 16 federal agencies are somewhat involved, he said, but their goals as far as nanotechnology is concerned are not clearly defined. "To a large part, we hold this type of forum to get your feedback as to what application areas we need to prioritize," said Murday.
As a player in a global economy, the United States needs to pay close attention to making science and engineering education "as interesting for our kids as possible," Murday said. "We need to show them what will be possible with nanotechnology in all kinds of applications in their future 20 years from now this will be a ho-hum subject. Now is the time to get them started, but how do we capture kids' imagination about how they can manipulate atoms?"
Murday reported on the milestones the National Nanotechnology Initiative has reached since the six Nanoscale Science and Engineering centers were funded in September 2001: "We came up with 10 points on which to concentrate our efforts since then," he said, including goals "to develop performance metrics, education and industrial partnerships, as well as to coordinate and leverage state initiatives."
In a separate workshop on nanotech undergraduate and graduate education, Stephen Goodnick, chairman of the electrical-engineering department at Arizona State University, reported on programs that foster collaboration between K-12 teachers and the NSF research community. "We encourage active participation of teachers in ongoing NSF projects, and we also encourage transfer of new knowledge to classroom activity," he said.
Funds for teachers, businesses
To that end, the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association of which Goodnick is a part composed of heads of departments offering accredited programs in electrical and computer engineering reported on an NSF program for disbursing $10,000 in NSF funding per teacher, for up to two teachers per school, for encouraging the transfer of research knowledge into the classroom.
The NSF is also attempting to attract small businesses into the nano fold. An NSF workshop next month in Washington will bring together startup-company technical executives, practicing engineers, researchers, and federal agency and technical society representatives working across the entire spectrum of nanotechnology. The Small Businesses Move to Nanotechnology Workshop will include several success stories of how small businesses in the manufacturing and service sectors have implemented nanotechnology developments.
Information on U.S. government research programs and NSF funding can be found at the National Science Foundation and Nanoscale Science and Engineering Web sites.