Senior Learner Explores New Career Path

At age 62, Bob Schutte of Apple Valley is not the youngest student on campus at Dakota County Technical College. Nonetheless, his excitement about nanotechnology represents an energizing and decisively youthful approach to education.

“I come from a family of teachers that goes back four generations,” said Schutte, who taught as an adjunct professor at Cardinal Stritch University. “My background is in behavioral psychology, and I’ve always liked working with data. Nanoscience offers a whole new world of data that is by nature extremely precise.”

Recently reelected to the ISD 196 school board as an incumbent with 15 years of experience, Schutte holds a master’s degree in behavioral analysis from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He attributes his initial interest in nanoscience to his daughter, Erika, a graduate of the Materials Science program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Erika has a job in the computer chip industry near Simi Valley out in California,” Schutte said. “She would call me on the phone and explain how her work frequently took her to the nano level. She told me how one of her nanotech projects saved her company thousands of dollars. Our ongoing conversations gradually made me recognize the intriguing possibilities of a career in nanoscience.”

Schutte visited DCTC after his wife, Kay, told him about the college’s Nanoscience Technology program. He met with Deb Newberry, the nuclear physicist who designed the program and now serves as its instructor.

“Deb really sold me on nanoscience,” said Schutte. “She is so full of enthusiasm and demonstrates a profound knowledge of her subject matter. I knew that her classes and labs would take me way beyond anything I could learn from a text book.”

Deb Newberry considers Schutte a gem of a pupil. “Although Bob is our oldest student so far,” she said, “we’ve had a number of students in their 40’s and 50’s. Like Bob, they’re looking for something new and exciting.”

Newberry also enjoys watching relationships build between students from different generations. “Younger students bring enthusiasm and a keen awareness of technology to class. More seasoned students bring maturity, experience, and a strong work ethic.

“Because companies look for employees with excellent communication and team skills, our classes revolve around group projects and presentations. Our students develop lasting bonds and friendships. They really support each other.”

Schutte keeps a busy schedule working as a customer service agent at Mesaba Airlines, a supervisor at Starbucks Coffee, and a board member overseeing one of the largest school districts in Minnesota. At present, he is a part-time student, but fully intends to earn his A.A.S. degree in nanoscience technology.

“I have no plans to retire,” he said, “because retirement looks boring. My plan is to work full-time as a nanoscience technician. When I look at nanoscience, I see no limits, which is why I’m not going to put limits on myself.”

Although he is not readily identifiable as a student, Schutte recently discovered one sizable advantage related to his age. “When I turned sixty-two, I found out that I was eligible for the senior citizen’s discount,” he said. “That means I only have to pay $20 per credit, which is a big savings.”

A thoroughly interdisciplinary field, nanotechnology is sometimes called a great melting pot of research. Nanotechnicians must understand the fundamental behavior patterns of atoms and molecules. Equipped with increasingly sophisticated equipment, they are constantly pushing back the frontiers of physics on a hugely small scale.

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. Lining up 10 hydrogen atoms side by side makes a row only one nanometer long. Comparing one meter to one nanometer is like comparing the diameter of our planet to the diameter of a single hazelnut.

Bob Schutte appreciates the marvels of his future career. “When I began studying behavioral psychology,” he said, “we were on the very cusp of scientific knowledge. With nanoscience, I’m finding the same level of excitement. I’ve always liked studying new things. Thanks to nanofabrication tools like the scanning electron microscope, I feel like science has caught up with me again.”

According to Lux Research in New York, governments, corporations, and venture capitalists around the globe are funneling some $12.4 billion into current nanoscience projects. The United States alone expends more than $3 billion annually on nanotech research and development.

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars catalogs 500 existing products that integrate nanoscience applications. The U.S. National Science Foundation reports that the market for such products will reach $1 trillion by 2012. A worldwide array of nano industries will employ upwards of 2 million people.

Graduates of DCTC’s Nanoscience Technology program are superbly prepared to excel in careers involving biotechnology, materials science, chemistry, applied physics, electronics, agriculture, and mechanical engineering—just to name a few. With more than 50 Minnesota companies using or applying nanoscience technology, the demand for nanotechnicians in the state is strong and growing.

Offered through a partnership with the University of Minnesota, the program delivers its first three semesters on the DCTC campus with the capstone semester held at the U of M’s Nanofabrication Center, Materials Characterization Lab, and Nanoparticles/Biotechnology Labs.