Big stimulus money devoted to small spaces at Grand Valley State

October 25, 2009
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Grand Valley State University will take a big step into nanotechnology over the next two years with a $200,000 grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Engineering professors Lihong (Heidi) Jiao and Nael A. Barakat will spend 2010 laying the groundwork to offer a multidisciplinary two-course sequence in nanotechnology, Jiao said.

Nanotechnology is expected to impact areas such as health care, manufacturing and electronics, and in some cases, already has. One nanometer equals one-billionth of a meter. Nanoscale is considered to be the realm of one to 100 nanometers: bigger than atomic scale, smaller than the microscale.

Nanotechnology has been used for years to make tennis racquets lighter and stronger, to eliminate the white color of sunscreen, to clean swimming pools and to coat eyeglasses.

But scientists and engineers expect that the tiny scale of nanotechnology will offer much more in the years ahead, explained Jiao, whose specialty area is materials.

“Nanoscience and nanotechnology nowadays is almost being taught everywhere,” Jiao said. “People talk about it. One time we had an open house here and several visitors came up to me, saying, ‘Do you have a nanotechnology program here?’ A lot of them heard of the word; a lot of them know a little about it. So they want to see here at Grand Valley that we have something that can teach our students about this new technology.”

She said the first course will be a basic introduction to nanotechnology. 

“The first course really is going to be fundamentals,” Jiao said. “What is the characteristic of matters when they go to small sizes; what is the characteristic tools and how can we see them? What’s the chemical difference; what’s the physical difference? And so, it is the fundamentals of these differences between the small size and the big size.”

Students will also have some lab time to build crystal solar cells, Jiao said.

The first course will be open to students from many academic areas, she added, including engineering, but also students in chemistry, biology, biomedical engineering and physics.

“It is not geared just to engineering students,” Jiao added, but will be particularly interesting for students in science courses.

The second course will build on the fundamentals taught in the first course and is expected to be even more hands-on, Jiao said.

“It’s going to be geared toward circuit and electronics,” she said. “The students are going to design circuits in small scale. … They will see the properties of this circuit and then will build them in our clean room here. So it really is a hands-on design field experience for the students.”

Jiao said she and Barakat will spend 2010 developing the two courses as well as a summer curriculum for high school students and teachers. GVSU’s first nanotechnology class is expected to convene in 2011, Jiao said.

Jiao said she’s hopeful that nanotechnology will attract more women in engineering and perhaps inspire high-school-age women to study it at GVSU.

“That’s one of the areas we are trying to grow and hopefully that will attract more women engineers,” she said. “If we go out and do the right marketing, we might be able to attract more starting from the high school level. We will definitely have workshops for students and for the high school, K-12, teachers, and expose them in this area.”

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