Earlier this year, I got to meet Jared Ashcroft and Billie Copley. Jared and Billie are Center Directors for the Micro Nano Technology Education Center (MNT-EC). Since they're doing a lot of exciting work in the the nano space, I invited them for a Q&A.
Tell us about yourselves. What are you passionate about these days?
JA – I am a Chemistry Professor at Pasadena City College as well as the Center Director for the Micro Nano Technology Education Center. My passions are in figuring out how we can increase passion and success in STEM classes using active learning pedagogies and in developing new academic pathways that allow students multiple opportunities to either transfer to a university or earn a certificate/associates degree and enter the STEM workforce. My focus is specifically on micro and nanotechnology technical education programs.
BC – I am the Micro Nano Technology Education Center’s Center Manager. I have been in the ATE world since 2011 when I started working for Deb Newberry at Nano-Link Center for Nanotechnology Education. I graduated from Dakota County Technical College in 2012 with my AAS in Nanoscience Technology. In 2018 I became the Project Manger of Nano-Link and in 2019 Jared asked me to come on board for a new grant he was writing.
Tell us about the Micro Nano Technology Education Center (MNT-EC).
JA – Pasadena City College, in collaboration with the Edmonds Community College, Portland Community College, and the Northwest Vista College, lead the ATE funded Micro Nano Technology Education Center (MNT-EC). The MNT-EC connects existing micro and nano NSF ATE Support Centers, 2-year technical colleges, four-year universities, and non-profit laboratories in an effort to focus on the preparation of a nationwide workforce for the manufacture of micro and nano technologies. Each member of the MNT-EC brings their resources (such as cleanrooms, educational materials, remote operation of lab instruments) to bear on the development of a common curriculum for associates, certificates, and degrees for the micro- and nanotechnologies. The content of this curriculum will be informed by the knowledge-skill-ability needs of industry members. Included in center activities are opportunities for faculty to increase student engagement through distance education, community outreach, and professional development workshops and hands-on experiences.
The microsystems and nanosystems technologies are becoming, if not already, pervasive throughout the daily human experience. The internet of things is expected to support a trillion micro-nano devices. Examples of micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) include pressor sensors, microphones, accelerometers, time-keeping devices, photonic devices, and medical instrumentation. The growth and convergence of these technologies will expand for the foreseeable future as the miniaturization and integration processes continues. A modern hi-tech workforce will be educated by MNT-EC educators to keep pace with these manufacturing developments.
With experienced ATE leaders from the Nanotechnology Applications and Career Knowledge Network (NACK), the Support Center for Microsystems Education (SCME), and the National Resource Center for Materials Education (MatEdU), among others partnering with the MNT-EC, MNT curriculum will be embedded in community colleges across the nation to increase the impact on and participation of their STEM faculty. Each MNT-EC partner will work with their local community to recruit and educate diverse students, increasing access and awareness to all students. The MNT-EC will increase the involvement of industry in the development and delivery of education elements by way of curriculum inputs and experts in the classroom, thus expanding the impact and scope of previous MNT-based ATE sponsored centers and projects.
BC – All of us here at MNT-EC are passionate and dedicated to what we do. Whether its materials, MEMS, nanoelectronics and applications, nanobiotechnology or photonics – we all love what we do. We have a desire to help faculty expand their curriculum or helping students see their bigger potential and overcome barriers. All of us want to make sure that the technicians and their faculty are prepared and excited about micro and nano technologies.
What would you say are the biggest challenges industry and educational groups are facing today, and how does MNT-EC help solve those problems?
JA – I look at the challenges from a community college perspective. We do not currently have enough MNT educational programs to fill the MNT technical workforce industry needs. We need to increase our programs across the country and come up with strategies to recruit students into our programs. As part of this effort we need to determine ways to make all students at community colleges and high schools aware that micro nanotechnology technician education programs exist. We must increase enrollment in the programs that we have as we are also developing more programs. This also includes outreach to future STEM community college faculty that can infuse MNT curriculum and programs into their school. We have lack of faculty, a lack of programs and a lack of students to fill industry needs.
BC – As a former student, I can tell you that the world does not know enough about our programs. I lived 15 minutes from the DCTC campus and never knew they had a nanoscience program until I went there to look into one of their other programs that was widely advertised. I think, for some, the word nanoscience or micro technology is scary. They think its PhD level stuff and that you have to be an A student in science to succeed.
We have to help the students and faculty work through that fear and realize that anyone who is willing to put the work in can be successful in our programs and get a good paying and highly rewarding job.
Likewise, I think industry needs to make the initiative to look around, learn about programs besides engineering and be willing to have conversations with their local community colleges. Sometimes I think people just get stuck in the mindset that they can’t have an impact on what is taught, when in reality it is the opposite.
In 2000, NSF predicted nanotechnology would be a trillion dollar market by 2015. It’s difficult to say whether or not this prediction came true, since nanotechnology is not a market by itself, but is instead embedded in so many industries. For example, a car company might use nanotech coatings on its vehicles, but Ford and GM likely wouldn’t think of themselves as nanotech companies. How do you engage companies that might not realize they’re using nanotech?
JA – This is another challenge we could mention above. Nanotechnology in and of itself is not always obvious. Creating a degree called Certificate in Nanotechnology may not resonate with industry. It is vital that we partner with industry and have them define what skills and standards a micro nanotechnology degree should entail. As part of the MNT-EC we are organizing a Business Industry Leadership Team (BILT). The BILT includes industry leaders that work with the MNT-EC to support creation of the Knowledge, Skills and Abilities competencies needed for an MNT degree. By engaging industry directly and having them be an active partner in center activities we will create a community that can create standards and programs that address each standard that industry needs competency in.
BC – Sometimes you have to go get their ear and ask them some leading questions. Never go ask them “what does a technician do here?” instead ask them “do your technicians work on the micro or nanoscale?” Or “do your technicians need to understand how materials behave at the micro or nanoscale?” You have to do your research and already know somethings about the company and then help them see where your technicians might be a better fit than hiring a BS, or masters degree to do the same job.
Nanotechnology was heavily hyped when I was in college in the late 90s. People created artistic renderings of tiny robots swimming around people’s bloodstreams and killing cancer cells. Obviously, nanotechnology is still a long way away from that, and I worry that over-promising might have jaded some people toward nanotech. (A friend even advised us to avoid using the word “nanotechnology”, because too many VCs have been burned by startups over-promising in the past.) When reaching out to others, would you say people are more excited or skeptical about nanotech? If the latter, how do you overcome that skepticism?
JA – This is a valid point. I also started in nanotechnology in early 2000 and the amount of grants or programs that used nanotechnology in their proposals was quite high. In many cases, the project or proposal did not really address “nanotechnology” issues. It is imperative that we define what nanotechnology is and what it is not. It is not a magic pill that will solve every science problem. There is not going to be a nano-based drug that cures cancer. However, like all science and technology, nanotechnology has applications in several industries. There will be future nano-based drugs, semiconductors utilize nano-based applications, materials science consists of nanotechnology materials. Increasing the knowledge of faculty, industry leaders and especially students what the foundation of nanotechnology is will lead to a better understanding of that opportunities are available in the field. We can use examples, such as an elevator to the moon and the targeted nano cancer therapy as our nano fantasies to increase student interest and engagement. At the same time, we can also show students how to use a scanning electron or atomic force microscope, how to do photolithography, or developing a Micro Electro Mechanical Sensor (MEMS) device and educate them on how they work. These are also exciting aspects of nanotechnology that are currently being used today. There are trillions of MEMS devices in society in all sorts of applications. MEMS alone is a $100 billion dollar a year business by 2024.
BC – Nanotechnology is an enabling technology that touches everything from food packaging and flavoring to cosmetics and textiles. It is literally found in just about everything these days. Got a scratch on your car – nanotechnology, need a heart stint – nanotechnology, want stain free pants – nanotechnology, need a better sunscreen – nanotechnology, want your food to stay fresh longer – nanotechnology, want your windshield to stop fogging up – nanotechnology. I think once people realize it’s a means rather than an end, they will get more comfortable with it. Also – the more connected people become the more they need to realize that micro and nanotechnology make that possible. Also realize that tiny nanobots taking over the world and turning everything into gray goo is really not going to happen.
Let’s say I run a small micro/nanotechnology company, and I have a need for technicians. Are there partnership opportunities with MNT-EC, and if so how should I reach out?
JA – We are always looking and excited to form partnerships with all MNT companies. There are several options. You can join our Business Industry Leadership Team (BILT). We have an industry working group that meets monthly to discuss MNT education and workforce needs. You can join either of these groups. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or e-mail Jared Ashcroft at email@example.com.
BC – Definitely email us –
Last question: If you had to hire a nanobot to do a job for you, what job would you hire it to do?
JA – If I could create a nanobot to embed in my brain that could make me always swing a golf club the same way over and over again I would be in heaven. Maybe on my backswing if I do it wrong a small shock comes to my arms and fixes the swing. Maybe I could start hitting long drives that are actually straight. This needs to be done. I will get my team on it right away.
BC – If I could hire a nanobot to do a job for me I would hire one that would take meeting minutes for all my meetings, so I don’t have to. That’s the least favorite part about my job. Of course it would take forever for a nanobot to write all those notes so maybe I should just keep doing them myself and have the nanobot keep my coffee hot.
Jared and Billie, thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with us, and good luck preparing the next generation of nano/microtechnology scientists!