As part of my job, I analyze the adoption of micro and nanotechnologies into the United States economy. Mainly I focus on the skill and education needs for engineers and technicians needed to work with such technologies. A common question I am asked is the status of the “nanotechnology industry” and where students may find jobs in it.

From what I can tell, there is no defined “nanotechnology industry.” Instead, microsystems and nanotechnologies are becoming more widespread across many industries. There applications are very diverse, ranging from shrinking integrated circuits to improving the delivery of pharmaceuticals. Industries making use of nanotechnology include semiconductors, to the food and automotive industries for applications such as transistors, better preservatives, and components for sensors that enable “smart” vehicles.

Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) however, can be classified as an industry itself. Experts tell me that as of 2014, this industry is still maturing and is predicted to see steady growth yet is still in its adolescence. In comparison, many hot topics of nanotechnology may still be in their infancy. For both MEMS and many promising applications of nanotechnology, materials selection and device design are still being perfected. As these technologies mature, their impact can be profound across many disciplines.

In fact, the Southwest Center for Microsystems Education has knowledge of over 3000 companies working with MEMS or some form of nanotechnology in the United States. The fields and specialties of these 3000 companies are as vast and diverse as the United States itself.*

Implications for the Education of Technicians and Engineers

Because of the omnipresence of nanotechnology, education programs specifically devoted to it have sprung up many places. However, does such an education adequately prepare students for a career? The answer depends on the specific application a student seeks to specialize in and whether or not their program enables them to learn all the relevant skills better than one in an applicable traditional field.

Even though the widespread use and potential of micro and nanotechnologies is claimed as justification for such programs, this poses a difficult challenge to nanotechnology education.

To be employable, a graduate must know how to make original and practical contributions in a competitive industry. Included in the know-how to do so is intermediate familiarity with the industry and its technical field. Microsystems and nanotechnology offer solutions to niche problems in a many dissimilar industries and fields simultaneously yet are not the only way to solve any of them. Specializing in the use of nanotechnology for one specific application may amount to focusing on a niche within a niche, if on target with local employer expectations.

Solving the Emerging Problems of Nanotechnology Education

To address potential skill mismatches and lack of industry exposure, and hopefully save job seeking nanotechnology students agony, educators I have interacted with worldwide have shared with me their efforts. There are many different approaches to solve these emerging problems. Most of the solutions I am told about focus on one any of these three criteria:

Students, educators, and local industry leaders need to interact more

On this subject, I strongly agree. How can educators design curricula that prepare students for industry jobs if they only have limited contact with industry professionals themselves? One of the best ways to find out is to ask as many local industry leaders as able to what their companies are looking for in a new hire. Students should meet and mingle with them for the networking.

If a program does not have contact with the outside industry is wishes to serve, it risks becoming out of touch and minting unprepared graduates.

Educators need to give students challenging projects, and many of them

The difference between a simulation and real device performance, inaccuracy of measurements, device failure analysis, and how these may relate to each other are better learned in a laboratory then a classroom. Industry leaders have voiced their concerns about engineers from programs that do not give students the chance to solve many open ended technical problems. According to them, the best ways for students to become employable is to have undertaken several practical and design projects.

The focus needs to be on micro and nanotechnology commercialization and workforce training as much as on research

While academic research is important, not all students will become researchers. For various reasons at many universities, teaching is less of a priority then research. This is a common complaint in programs where only the theoretical concepts behind science and engineering are taught as they relate to current research efforts. Students and industry leaders have voiced serious concern about this to me. On the other hand, university program directors have also told me about their efforts to create opportunities to prepare students for the rigors of the technology economy. Often these are coordinated internships and technology commercialization efforts placing students at their lead.

While nanotechnology education programs are often justified by the anticipation of workforce needs in the nanotechnology economy, this economy is still emerging. Microsystems and nanotechnologies are used by many different and diverse industries, each requiring a different set of skills for technical work.   Multidisciplinary microsystems and nanotechnology education can teach the basics of how each works and how they can be applied but may not cover enough of a specific technical discipline to best prepare students to take jobs.

Some promising ways summarized to address this through rigorous design projects, strengthening degree program’s and students’ ties to industry, and accelerating the commercialization of nanotechnologies originating in university research labs.

Note: The Southwest Center for Microsystems Education plans to publish more about its findings regarding the microsystems and nanotechnology enabled economy in the United States and potential skills needed in it. Stay tuned at http://scme-nm.org/.

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