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U students develop engineering course materials for nationwide use

Layout of Thomas and Tran's microchip, which students can view under a microscope and manipulate with unique computer software. Each high school and university which receives the pair's nanotechnology curriculum will receive one microchip. Each area of the microchip corresponds to a different lesson on nanotechnology, such as thermal expansion, torsion and nanophotonics.

March 12, 2015—A pair of engineering undergraduates at the University of Utah have created a new way to educate high school and university students about nanotechnology.

Jeff Thomas, a senior civil engineering major, and Bryan Tran, a junior mechanical engineering major, created teaching materials and corresponding demonstration microchips to teach high school and university students basic scaling engineering concepts related to the way physical rules change and operate when designing at the micro- and nano-scale, which is 1 to 1000 nanometers

“In high school, students have to take a computer course to be technologically competent. The idea with the materials we’ve developed is to teach students how to use the next generation of technology and how to design intuitively in the world of the small” said Thomas.

“Nano and microtechnology are used in everything. From the cellphones in our pockets to air bag sensors in our cars, an increasing number of devices are the products of nano and microtechnology.”

After realizing the lack of scaling engineering courses in the country, Thomas and Tran’s faculty advisors, Brian Baker and Ian Harvey, both in the U’s College of Engineering, applied for funding from the W.M. Keck Foundation, which they successfully received. The project launched in August 2013.

The project’s goal is to help students recognize and understand the differences between physical characteristics of large scale objects and small scale objects, by creating in-class demonstrations and supporting instructional aids that can be incorporated into a variety of traditional science and engineering courses.

The team partnered with Tim Dallas of Texas Tech University and Sandia National Labs to provide chips, a demonstration apparatus and educational materials to Salt Lake Community College, Utah Valley University, University of Texas, University of New Mexico, Air Force Institute of Technology and University of South Florida.

Harvey and Baker first developed an outline of which devices the courses would focus on. When Thomas and Tran joined the project, they determined what concepts could be taught with each device and consulted fellow students to gauge how information should best be presented. After this, they created courses for each of the concepts. The courses integrate the demonstration microchip for students to gain an intuitive understanding of the concepts.

The microchips contain microelectromechanical systems, which are miniaturized devices and moving mechanical structures made using the same fabrication tools that are used to make computer chips. The chip is 3 mm by 6 mm (for comparison, a penny is roughly 19 mm in diameter), and students will be able view them under a microscope and use computer software developed by Texas Tech University to manipulate them.

The developed course materials explore the following topics in microscaling: torsion and electrostatic force, mechanical advantage, surface area to volume ratio, electrostatics, nanophotonics, heating and cooling time, inertia and momentum, thermal expansion, bistability, flexibility and capacitance.

After receiving the chips from Sandia National Laboratories, Thomas and Tran are now in the process of testing them before distribution. The project is slated to be done and ready for distribution by December 2015.