The Future Is Big For All Things Nano

There is no doubt that there has been a lot of hype surrounding nanotechnology. From the plot lines of science fiction to its real-world applications, nanoscience technology is getting its fair share of attention.

Which is the primary reason why NanoClass at DCTC has become a popular destination for area high school students.

For four days in June, 14 high school students spent time in DCTC’s spacious new science lab, participating in a variety of hands-on activities and taking part in lectures and discussions under the guidance of Deb Newberry, the nuclear physicist who designed and serves as instructor for DCTC’s nanoscience technology program.

The students had the opportunity to look at the awesomely small materials nanoscience technicians encounter daily. Derived from the Greek word for “dwarf,” the prefix nano means “one billionth.” In respect to nanotechnology, the term involves the measure of one nanometer, or one billionth of a meter. As a reference point, the smallest bacteria on Earth are around 200 nanometers in length. Comparing one meter to one nanometer is like comparing the diameter of our planet to the diameter of a single hazelnut.

Bethanne Carpenter, 17, a senior from Eastview High with an interest in biomedical engineering, summed up her NanoClass experience as very surprising.

“I discovered different aspects of nanotechnology other than computer chips,” she said. “I saw how nature uses nanotechnology to design every aspect of life.”

Two of the participants, Aaron Wolfe, 18, also from Eastview, and Samantha Zahratka, 18, from Lakeville South, had a special interest in the class, as they will be joining the Nanoscience Technology program at DCTC this fall.

The first of its kind in Minnesota, DCTC’s Nanoscience Technology program got its start in 2003 with a $900,000 Advanced Technological Education grant from the National Science Foundation. Today, the 72-credit program is only the second in the nation to offer students a two-year A.A.S. degree in nanoscience technology.

The program grounds students on several levels, giving them the knowledge base and technical skills needed to excel in careers involving biotechnology, materials science, chemistry, applied physics, electronics, agriculture, and mechanical engineering – to name a few.

In the fourth and capstone semester of the program, the students in the program travel to the University of Minnesota’s Nanofabrication Center to enhance their technical capabilities using state-of-the-art facilities and equipment in the Materials Characterization and Nanoparticles/Biotechnology labs – which was also one of the stops that students in the NanoClass made on their third day of class.

Graduates leave the program as fully qualified technicians equipped to perform and apply the marvels of nanoscience in virtually every aspect of the business world, from research to marketing, from strategic planning to production.

The well rounded curriculum is important, especially considering that by the year 2012, the U.S. market for nanotech applications will top $1 trillion, requiring at least four support technicians for every engineer and scientist working in the field.

As a result of the increasing demand, Newberry continues to see more interest in the program, but also points out that too many students shy away from the field because they see the math and science component as too challenging.

“When I talk to potential students,” Newberry said, “I put more value on their enthusiasm and basic interest than on their high school grades and computer placement scores.”

Nonetheless, science and math are certainly a big part to the nanoscience program. With more than 20 years of experience as a corporate leader in the arenas of outer space, satellites, and nanotechnology, Newberry understands the link between science and business, both big and small.

While learning to operate atomic force, scanning tunneling, and scanning electron microscopes, the tools of their future trade, her students master the core concepts of their field, grasping the ways physics alters its priorities at nanoscale, with gravity consistently giving way to friction in terms of observable influence.

“My students also pick up the soft skills that companies greatly value in their employees,” Newberry added. “They learn how to analyze data, write reports, and give presentations.”

With more than 50 Minnesota companies – and many more nationwide – heavily engaged in the application of nanoscience technology, Newberry is quite optimistic about the continued growth and evolution of her program.

“We are basically dealing with things on the molecular and atomic level,” she said. “We are entering the exciting world of the unknown – and the knowledge we gain can be applied to everything.”