A Nano-Ready Workforce
Nanotechnology has come a long way since Richard Feynman, of the California Institute of Technology, gave his 1959 lecture, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” and asked why we couldn’t write the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica on the head of a pin.
Years of research and development have given scientists the ability to manipulate material structures for strength, durability, and weight, as well as unique properties not found at the bulk or macroscopic level. These capabilities have contributed to the development of new products and processes, and the use of nanotechnology is growing across many industries.
Alongside its industrial use, “We’re trying to teach people to work at the nano level and to understand it,” says ASTM International member Robert Ehrmann, managing director of the NACK (Nanotechnology Applications and Career Knowledge) Network at Penn State University.
A set of standards from the ASTM International committee on nanotechnology (E56) is now providing a framework for nanotechnology workforce education. An ASTM certificate program is currently being developed. And through these efforts, E56 is building a foundation for technicians and engineering assistants entering the field.
Setting the Stage
“Nano” means one-billionth, so a nanometer is one billionth of a meter. That very smallness — a sheet of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick and a strand of hair is 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers wide — is hard to picture.
Starting in the early 2000s, consumer products manufactured with the technology began to be available.
Stronger tennis rackets and golf clubs, car bumpers less likely to be scratched or dented, and stain-resistant pants have come with nano-enabled advances. In medicine, nanocrystalline dressings have provided an antimicrobial barrier for burns and other wounds for years, and nanotechnology advances have been driving electronics development toward smaller and faster transistors as well as better device displays.
Today’s Nanotechnology Consumer Products Inventory lists more than 1,600 items —those identified by their makers — up from its first list of 54 products in 2005.
Nano Education and ASTM International
Along with the increasing use of nanotechnology has come a growing focus on dedicated nanotechnology education.
“There are academic programs and degrees in nanotechnology that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” says Debra Kaiser, Sc.D., the former E56 chair who leads the subcommittee (E56.07) directly responsible for the standards. Kaiser is a technical program director in the Material Measurement Laboratory at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
One nanotechnology program list indicates some 300 education majors in nanotechnology worldwide for bachelor’s degrees and beyond.
“Historically, the educational aspects of nanotechnology have been on the very advanced end of the skill spectrum — people with advanced degrees,” says Raymond Tsui, Ph.D., an academic associate at Arizona State University in Tempe, and an E56 member. “But the technology is so pervasive and impacts so many areas, you can’t just have a workforce on one end of the skill spectrum. You also need engineering assistants and technicians so training people to work in these aspects is important.”
That has been the focus of the ASTM efforts.
NACK approached ASTM International in 2013 with a goal of developing standards for subjects important for someone entering the nanotechnology field as a technician or engineering assistant. The network began with a 2008 four-year grant from the National Science Foundation.
“The standards were to cover what we believe to be important aspects of nanotechnology, which would allow people to work in different parts of the industry — R&D, manufacturing, and so on,” says Tsui. “This will promote uniformity in the qualifications of graduates from community and technical colleges to meet both industry and academic needs.”
A Foundation with Standards
Six standards, developed by the E56 subcommittee with input from industry and academia, are now available. The standards focus on the key subjects for a nanotechnology education program. According to Ehrmann, the standards cover a foundation of knowledge not yet typically taught.
The standards include guides and a practice for:
- Health and safety (E2996),
- Characterization (E3001),
- Pattern generation (E3034),
- Infrastructure (E3059),
- Materials synthesis and processing (E3071), and
- Material properties and size effects (E3089).
Kaiser notes that while the standards’ content takes the form of lists, there are educational materials, modules, and more available for free from the NACK Network.
The health and safety guide, for example, includes key topics for an educational program that will prepare people to work safely in nanotechnology research, development, or manufacturing. The guide avoids providing specific course material so that programs can cover commonly required material while meeting needs of local employers.
Certificate Program in Development
The next step for the E56 subcommittee is to create a set of exams; those passing the exams will receive a certificate from ASTM International. Like the standards, the certificates will each address a specific skill set: health and safety, characterization, and so on.
The certificates will highlight that their holders have the skills needed for a 21st century tehnological workforce and help them find well-paying jobs. Employers will have assurance that new hires have the necessary skills and knowledge in nanotechnology.
Certificate holders will have more than a two-year degree from a community college; they will have an additional credential (or credentials) that carries weight at companies across the United States.
The first certificate — for the health and safety standard — is advancing toward completion.
The technical advisory group convened to help with this effort, with representatives from academia, federal government, and industry, has reviewed hundreds of questions contributed by subject matter experts. Each question reflects a technical aspect of health and safety for nanotechnology. Now, the group has pared down the list and is refining and formatting the questions before building a database for individual exams.
Individuals may choose to focus on one certificate, but the certificates are stackable and add on to each other for a broad foundation in nanotechnology.
This foundation will benefit the many industries using nanotechnology as well as students seeking jobs in this area. As Ehrmann says, “Having the understanding of the nanoscale and the ability to work with the nanoscale sets you apart from the person that’s next to you.”