Training the nanotechnologists of the future

It’s that time of year when academic corridors are brightened by the influx of students, new and returning. I’m particularly pleased to see here at Sheffield the new intake for the Masters course in Nanoscale Science and Technology that we run jointly with the University of Leeds.

We’ve got 29 students starting this year; it’s the fourth year that the course has been running and over that time we’ve seen a steady growth in demand. I hope that reflects an appreciation of our approach to teaching the subject.

My view is that to work effectively in nanotechnology you need two things, First comes the in depth knowledge and problem-solving ability you get from studying a traditional discpline, whether that’s a pure science, like physics and chemistry, or an applied science, like materials science, chemical engineering or electrical engineering. But then you need to learn the languages of many other disciplines, because no physicist or chemist, no matter how talented at their own subject, will be able to make much of a contribution in this area unless they are able to collaborate effectively with people with very different sets of skills. That’s why to teach our course we’ve assembled a team from many different departments and backgrounds; physicists, chemists, materials scientists, electrical engineers and molecular biologists are all represented.

Of course, the nature of nanotechnology is such that there’s no universally accepted curriculum, no huge textbook of the kind that beginning physicists and chemists are used to. The speed of development of the subject is such that we’ve got to make much more use of the primary research literature than one would for, say, a Masters course in physics. And because nanotechnology should be about practise and commercialisation as well as theory we also refer to the patent literature, something that’s, I think, pretty uncommon in academia.

In terms of choice of subjects, we’re trying to find a balance between the hard nanotechnology of lithography and molecular beam epitaxy and the soft nanotechnology of self-assembly and bionanotechnology. The book of the course, “Nanoscale Science and Technology”, edited by my colleagues Rob Kelsall, Ian Hamley and Mark Geoghegan, will be published in January next year.

2 Responses to “Training the nanotechnologists of the future”

  1. Hal Finney says:

    Do you find that you get students coming in who are exposed to Drexler’s conception of nanotech? What do you say to them about those ideas?

  2. Richard Jones says:

    I think that many or most of the students have been exposed to Drexler’s views. Certainly, at the welcome lunch yesterday one of the two dominant topics of conversation was Drexler and Smalley. What I said to them was what I think. (The other subject was Prince Charles, so I said what I think about that too, confident that I’ve already blown my chance for a knighthood).