Minn.-N.D. program prepares students for growing nanotech industry

Clean room lab
Kayzie Gerstner, of West Fargo, N.D., and Jason Remaike, of Minneapolis, work on a project in the clean room lab at the Center for Nanoscience Technology Training in Fargo, N.D., on Dec. 8, 2009.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Nanotechnology is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, and a two-year training program in Fargo-Moorhead gives students hands on training to prepare them for nanotech jobs.

Nanotech is the manipulation of material on a molecular scale, and is now used in more than 1,000 consumer products. The National Science Foundation predicts businesses will need two million nanotech workers in the next five years.

Students at the Center for Nanoscience Technology Training in Fargo can build and study objects built of atom-sized particles. Essential tools include an electron microscope, a noisy piece of equipment. Large video screens on the wall show tiny objects magnified hundreds of times.

"Those teeth in the gears are probably ten to less than ten micrometers in terms of size," said nanoscale training program director Michael Burke pointing out a gear magnified 750 times.

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That's one-tenth the size of a human hair. And these gears turn and operate tiny mechanical switches called MEMS, which are in many of the devices we use every day.

"Everybody knows what a Wii is right? Well in the hand control of a Wii there are MEMS devices that basically tell where that thing is in three-dimensional position," Burke said. "You've got MEMS devices in the bumper of your car and those are the things that deploy your airbag."

These tiny gears are mass produced similar to computer chips. The students in the two-year year program are learning to build nanoscale devices and how to troubleshoot nanoscale manufacturing.

MEMS device
Microelectric switches like this one are made by etching very thin layers of chemicals. This MEMS device contains 10 individual mechanical switches.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

The five-year old program is a collaboration of Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Moorhead and North Dakota College of Science in Wapheton. Students take the first year on campus and the second year is spent at this high tech lab in Fargo. Students here can also learn about biotechnology, biofuels and micro-electronics

Michael Burke said traditional science education is a lot of lecture and a little lab time. At the lab, that idea is flipped. Burke said he doesn't spoon feed students the theory.

"What we do is put it out there on a Web site and basically say students, you're responsible for learning this," he said. "If you have questions come ask us. But we're not going to waste class time reading a slide to you. We're going to get you in the lab and have you learn hands on."

A lot of the hands-on learning happens in the glass-walled clean room. Dust or even skin cells can disrupt nanoscale manufacturing, so powerful filters clean the air and students wear hair nets, booties and gowns.

Kristi Jean holds a doctorate in chemical engineering and said she loves the hands-on approach to teaching. She said many of the students chose a two-year program because they weren't confident enough to pursue a four-year science degree.

"They maybe weren't the traditional 4.0 science geek," Jean said. "But they are their own form of science geek. It's fun because they'll take it a step farther, they'll ask questions. They say I saw this on Modern Marvels or I saw this on Myth Busters. Can we try this out?"

MEMS device magnified
A microelectric mechanical systems, or MEMS, device is magnified 750 times on an electron microscope at the Center for Nanoscience Technology Training in Fargo, N.D. The microscope can magnify more than 3,000 times.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Curiosity attracted 26-year-old Grant Bossert to the program. The Fargo, ND resident worked in construction for a few years before deciding he wanted a more interesting job.

"I've always been pretty good in math and science, so this is pretty easy to grasp and it's all pretty interesting so it makes you want to learn it," Bossert said. "It's kind of mind blowing but it's cool at the same time."

Bossert expects to get a job after he graduates. Many industries will be looking for nanotech workers as nanotechnology is in everything from cosmetics to cars.

Nicole Dallman, 20, from Braham, Minn., entered the nanotech program right after high school. She will continue on for a four-year degree in engineering and is interested in nanofiltration.

"Filtering water from the ocean to make it pure and cleaner so we have more drinking water; that's something I'm considering," Dallman said.

Many of the students who finish this two-year program go on to complete advanced degrees.

Equipment problem
Instructor Kristi Jean helps student Kayzie Gerstner troubleshoot an equipment problem at the Center for Nanoscience Technology Training in Fargo, N.D., on Dec. 8, 2009.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Program Director Michael Burke said the hands-on training seems to give students confidence and pique their interest in learning more.

"You know they're thinking, man I just want to get a job but this is really cool stuff, and they get in here and this is some really deep science," he said. "They're really working their butts off learning this stuff. And over the two years they develop confidence and they say I can do this. So a lot of them are choosing to jump back in to engineering programs after they get out."

Burke said the high-tech lab gives students an edge in the job market.

"When they go out into industry they can say [they've] had a hundred hours working in a clean room environment, or had 75 hours on a scanning electron microscope doing analysis," he said. "And I think that's what makes our program unique and one of the best in the country."

The third nanotechnology class will graduate this spring, and they might find jobs close to home. Burke said there are nanotech jobs in Fargo and dozens of Twin Cities companies are now using nanotechnology. Burke expects demand for the course to increase as the demand for nanotech workers grows.