By Guy Paisner
Small Times Correspondent
April 1, 2002 — Europe may have a reputation for endless bureaucracy when it comes to adapting the programs that are taught at university level, but widespread enthusiasm for small tech has resulted in the creation of a number of nanotechnology and MEMS focused courses.
Nanotechnology and MEMS-related research cuts across a large number of scientific and engineering research disciplines and, at the postgraduate level in the United Kingdom, there are plenty of high-quality doctoral theses in progress that add to the knowledge universe of small technology.
However, as excitement builds for the enormous manufacturing opportunities that small tech presents, U.K. academia and business realize that it is important to extend the training beyond the specialist doctoral level.
In 1993 the Center for Self Organising Molecular Systems (SOMS) was established as an interdisciplinary research center at the University of Leeds in Yorkshire. With interest in nanotechnology steadily increasing through the ’90s, its center’s directors started discussing the creation of a master’s course in nanotech and MEMS in conjunction with the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Sheffield. The two universities developed a package covering a range of training needs including one-day workshops, two-week short courses, as well as part- and full-time master’s degrees.
The training package is administered from SOMS with participation from academic departments spanning the physics, chemistry, biology, electronic engineering and materials disciplines, thus providing an interdisciplinary program with optimum coverage of the relevant subject areas.
Robert Kelsall, course director for the Masters Training Package in Nanoscale Science and Technology, says that the SOMS Center had been training doctoral students in an interdisciplinary environment since 1993.
“We had already established the kind of interdisciplinary infrastructure required for nanotechnology research and we believed that opening the course into a master’s level program would be a logical extension of our doctoral program,” he says. In its first year, 13 students signed up for the full-time course. Kelsall says that the number of inquiries for next year’s course suggests he will have at least 20 students.
The SOMS Centre is not the only English university that recognized a need for nanotech research. The University of Cranfield is located 50 miles northwest of London and was originally established after World War II as an aeronautical college. The course directors at its School of Industrial and Manufacturing Science also realized that the growth of nanotech would be accompanied by a skills gap in qualified graduates wishing to pursue a technical career in small technology industries.
Roger Whatmore, professor of engineering nanotechnology at Cranfield University, now supervises nine full-time students studying for master’s degrees in microsystems and nanotechnology. The school also offers a three-year part-time course for people already working in industry and allows students to take individual course modules that are tailored to their specific needs.
Whatmore says there is a lot of industrial interest in the course with a number of companies and external institutions sponsoring individual course projects.
One of the projects, sponsored by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, involves establishing a nanoforce standard, which would allow scientists to measure and quantify forces in the nano-newton range. “Industry would be very interested in knowing for certain how to calibrate nanoscale instruments such as the nanoindenter, which measures the hardness of coatings that are only a few molecules thick,” says Whatmore.
With a background in electrical engineering for a number of U.K. companies, Whatmore understands the importance of applying scientific research to the commercial world. “When setting up the course I thought about what I would have wanted someone to teach me, given the knowledge I now have in this field. Our course is not just about giving students a good education but equipping them with the know-how to solve industrial problems. Students graduating from our course will know where they can find the tools that can help solve the problem they face.”
The Cranfield course was set up with the commercial market very much in mind. It offers modules in specific technology areas such as microsystems design, scanning probe technologies and molecular nanotechnology as well as the more general field of technology management. “When our students graduate they should be able to get find a job in small tech and what is more, they will be an asset to the companies that employ them,” he says.
Kelsall also emphasizes the importance of combining the academic and commercial worlds. The course at the University of Leeds has an Industrial Advisory Board composed of staff from the semiconductor, physical, chemical and pharmaceutical industries. One of his students is currently fully sponsored by a company for the duration of his studies.
Kelsall does not believe that there is any danger of nanotechnology being overhyped. “Nanotechnology is such a broad field, and involves the interaction of so many disciplines that new ideas, concepts and breakthroughs will keep on occurring. The field will evolve, and may change in emphasis and scope, but it will continue to grow in impact, rather than diminish.”
Both course directors believe that the interdisciplinary nature of nanotechnology and MEMS research makes their courses all the more necessary in a world where scientific research becomes ever more specialized. “There are so many new developments in the field of nanotech that the vast majority of existing scientists are no longer familiar with what is happening outside their specialized domain’” says Kelsall.
The proof of the courses’ value will be in the number of graduates that find jobs in the nanotech industry. As both courses are in their first year it is too early to judge their track record. Nonetheless the fact that these courses exist is clear evidence of the growing appetite for small tech in the United Kingdom.
Reprints of this article are available here.