Working Knowledge: Promoting Nanotechnology Education

New standards are helping to train workers for the nanotechnology age.
Rich Wilhelm

For many, nanotechnology calls to mind images of science fiction movies like “Fantastic Voyage,” or for younger audiences, the movie “Innerspace” – a futuristic world many eons away from present reality.

A look at the news, however, tells us that nanotechnology is no longer a cinematic fantasy. It has entered the realm of daily life, and is changing it for the better all over the world. Researchers at East Carolina University recently created a new nanotechnology to battle the COVID-19 virus. Not needing refrigeration, it is hoped that this drug could help treat the virus in the developing world. Meanwhile, researchers at Quebec’s Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS) have demonstrated that nanotechnology has the potential to help turn microbrewery waste into anmal feed.

And this was the news cycle for just one 48-hour time period.

According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), nanotechnology is “science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers.”

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In other words, the NNI website homepage notes, at its most basic, nanotechnology is the study and application of extremely small things. Nanotechnology has applications across science and, touches fields such as chemistry, biology, physics, materials science and engineering. 

Founded in 2005, the committee on nanotechnology (E56) has been devoted to the development of standards and guidance for nanotechnology and nanomaterials, as well as to the coordination of existing ASTM standardization related to nanotechnology needs.

E56 began to develop the promotion of education in the nanotechnology field in 2015, when the subcommittee on education and workforce development (E56.07) was formed. Two standards designed to educate existing and future workers in nanotechnology were also approved:

  1. Standard guide for workforce education in nanotechnology, health, and safety; this standard provides a basic educational structure in the health and safety aspects of nanotechnology, describing the minimum knowledge needed for an individual involved in nanomanufacturing or nanomaterials research.
  2. Standard practice for workforce education in nanotechnology characterization; this standard establishes the basic structure for undergraduate education in the characterization of nanoscale materials.

The Nanotechnology Applications and Career Knowledge (NACK) Network initiated the development of these standards. NACK is a resource center for nanotechnology workforce development funded by the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program. 

Since 2015, educators have used the standards to develop and refine curricula at the undergraduate level. Industry and business have also found the standards helpful in as a basis for hiring new graduates as well as for upgrading skills of current employees.

In the meantime, E56.07 has continued to develop education standards, with the full E56 committee subsequently approving four others. A complete list of the current nanotechnology education standards can be found here. 

Now, E56.07 is again partnering with the NSF-ATE NACK Support Center on the establishment of stackable certificates for micro-nano-technology workforce education. A series of performance-based assessment exams have been developed that focus on topics covered in the workforce education standards. Individuals will be able to earn ASTM industry-endorsed stackable certificates.

ASTM and NACK are leading this effort with industry, government, and academic partners assisting in exam development. 

“These certificates are designed primarily for individuals wanting to seek entry-level positions (technician and/or junior engineer) in the nanotechnology workforce, as well as those of related advanced manufacturing sectors,” says Ray Tsui, Ph.D., a staff member of the Nanotechnology Collaborative Infrastructure Southwest, Arizona State University. “The certificates are to be attained by completing course work and/or programs and then passing corresponding exams.”

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Zac Gray, Managing Director of Penn State University’s Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization (under which the NACK Center is located), notes that the collaborative team working on this education program is particularly interested in using these certificates as a credential for job seekers who are veterans or military personnel in the process of transitioning back to civilian life. Pilot programs in this area have been conducted. 

Gray believes that obtaining personnel certificates will help both nanotech employers and potential employees. Those looking to fill job positions will have a basis for evaluating skills and qualifications of current and future staff, while job seekers with certificates will be able to differentiate themselves from others in their profession and thus advance their careers.

In order to increase awareness of the stackable certificate program, ASTM’s Committee E56 will market the certificates among industry while NACK will do the same among educational institutions. Such marketing will enhance industry’s awareness of nanotechnology and help recruitment of graduates from program incorporating nanotechnology. 

Those who successfully complete certificate programs will be listed on NACK’s site, as well as ASTM’s Credentialing Program Registry for verification by prospective employers.

So far, three certificates have been created that cover five of the six education standards:

  1. ASTM Workforce Certificate for Health and Safety in Nanotechnology

  2. ASTM Workforce Certificate for Nanotechnology Characterization.

  3. ASTM Workforce Certificate for Nanotechnology Fabrication and Related Infrastructure

 A fourth certificate for nanotechnology material properties and effects of size is slated for future development.

 Exams for all three of the completed certificates have been validated and are open to the public. The exams will be administered by Credential Testing Services (CTS). Four pilot proctored exam sites have been established, while remote testing is also available. For more information on the stackable certificates program please contact Dr. Zachary Gray at Penn State University.

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