In my correspondence with other students and graduates of post secondary nanotechnology degree programs, I have been told of their struggles, accomplishments, and the shortcomings of such a program. The latter, and the challenges of addressing them have found their way into my discussions with nano educators too. Internet searching yields surprisingly little information on the problems of and challenged faced by nanotechnology education programs and their students. While many online resources exist to provide material to nanotechnology educators, students, and the general public, the shortcomings of curricula devoted specifically to micro and nanotechnologies and how to address them appear underreported.

I have heard the frustrations of students and educators I have corresponded with. In this post, I will identify what appear to me as the three greatest difficulties of nanotechnology education and their causes. These are that curricula may focus too broadly, a lack of laboratory classes, and risk of leaving graduates uncompetitive to enter the workforce.

Nano degrees are too broad and not rigorous enough

Nanotechnology degrees may be too broad yet too specialized in all areas they cover, leaving students to complain about having a little bit of knowledge about everything yet able to excel at nothing. Employers do not like this! Educators also become frustrated with the subject. They worry there is too much to cover and about the risk of overwhelming their students (and themselves) with details if they dive deeply into the underlying principles behind all micro and nanotechnologies. They have to pick and choose what to cover. If they broadly overview everything that makes nanotechnology possible, it becomes harder to make classes both rigorous and relevant.

If misconstrued, I am told nanotechnology degrees do not provide the same depth of knowledge and levels of practical experience as more traditional engineering degrees. Because of this, their graduates risk being less competitive for jobs.

With micro and nanotechnology, there is so much to cover and not always enough time to teach thoroughly and rigorously. Community college educators are most challenged by this, because their curricula is traditionally limited to 2 years in total! In undergraduate engineering programs, one has to fit all the prerequisite courses the upper division engineering courses into 4 years. Somewhere in these 2 or 4 years, a student needs to learn the fundamentals, build technical skills, and gain real-world experience that will land them a job upon completion.

Within micro or nanotechnologies, academic rigor can come from frequent and challenging assignments and design projects. It is the practical experience from design projects that impress employers more than the breadth of knowledge of a job seeking student. These also need to fit into a curricula.

There are not enough applicable lab classes

I am told this very often too. Students tell me the lack of hands-on experience keeps their degree from becoming practical, and them from being employable. Educators cite lack of resources or access to specialized equipment as reasons. Teaching nanotechnology or microsystems is expensive. A lesson on growing nanowires, for example, may require the use of expensive chemicals and an in-demand piece of laboratory equipment. Teaching the fabrication of MEMS will require a cleanroom, and use of many of the specialized processing equipment. The point is that nanotechnology often requires the use of very specialized and expensive materials and equipment that can cost over a million dollars to install. Not every community college or university department can afford many laboratory classes.

For this reason, many simpler demonstration kits, do-it-yourself resources, and even remote access to nanotechnology characterization tools are offered. Students gaining practical experience building micro and nanostructures in a laboratory class is vital. Without it, employers are disenchanted and will hire others with the right experiences. Fortunately, the educators I have corresponded with understand this and are working to address it.

Nano degrees may not adequately prepare students for jobs

It has been mentioned many times before that internships and entry level jobs require practical engineering skills, yet nano education focuses on concepts and research. Another complaint is that there is not enough time in a 4-year curriculum to teach enough technical skills as well as nanotechnology theory to make students as competitive for jobs as more traditional engineering degrees do.

This is a serious concern for students in programs that save their upper division engineering courses for the last 2 years. Some employers have voiced that nanotechnology programs do not provide the same level of preparation, leaving nano students less prepared for the job. Furthermore, many posted nanotechnology engineering jobs require graduate degrees. What room does this leave for Bachelor’s level nanoengineers?

Optimistic students and educators insist this is a perception problem, that should be solved by more active industry outreach and marketing. In my opinion, this is only part of a larger challenge of nanotechnology education. This is that nanoscience and nanotechnology are still very much theoretical fields. Even though they have important and underappreciated societal impact, many their promises still have yet to leave research and development. Because of this, not many entry level engineering and technician jobs in industry require comprehensive knowledge about nanotechnology. The ones that do are often at specialized or research and development companies which require graduate degrees for consideration.

Regardless, one must not forget that the industry enabled by micro and nanotechnologies and its workforce are globalized and knowledge driven. So is competition for its employment. A nanotechnology degree must focus to meet specific workforce needs. Any that aim to prepare its graduates for a job market that should exist in theory run the risk of irrelevance and creating dissatisfied alumni.

The bigger picture

The need to increase public awareness about nanotechnology and to teach students about the associated ethical and occupational safety issues is widely understood. Shortcomings of nanotechnology education, however, are not explored in as much detail. Hopefully, this post will illuminate what may be some of the greatest challenging for nanotechnology degree programs.

While their subject matter may become the next industrial revolution, nanotechnology degrees are a new phenomenon. Nanotechnology education is still a work in progress and students wishing to pursue it must understand this. Such programs may provide the chance to learn valuable skills in the hottest emerging technologies but they also risk inadequately preparing students for a job market that has not materialized. To increase the competitiveness of nanotechnology degrees and ensure they create employable graduates, opportunities for all students to gain practical skills and the depth of knowledge are required. What is needed most in nanotechnology education is a way to make a theoretical degree practical.

Note: a great online resource regarding the challenges faced by undergraduate nanotechnology education is the Symposium on Advances in Higher Education in Nanoscale Science and Engineering held at SUNY Albany in 2009