Soon after she began doing research into polymer-lithium batteries, Susan Fullerton realized she needed to become more well-versed in nanotechnology.
Practitioners of nanotechnology create new products by controlling matter at the atomic and molecular level, at which size is measured in nanometers (one nm equals one one-billionth of a meter).
Like other nanotech researchers, Fullerton wanted to learn why tiny particles of a material can have dramatically different properties—electronic behavior, color, chemical reactivity, etc.—from a larger volume of the same material.
There was just one problem: Fullerton is a first-year graduate student in chemical engineering at Penn State University, which does not offer courses on materials and nanotechnology.
Now, it doesn’t need to. Penn State, Lehigh and four other universities in the state—the University of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon and Drexel—recently formed the Materials Pennsylvania Coalition, or MatPaC.
Using Internet 2 videoconferencing, the materials science and engineering departments and materials research centers of the six universities "share" courses and research facilities.
This spring, Fullerton, seven other Penn State students and 15 Lehigh students enrolled in "Materials for Nanotechnology," a new Lehigh graduate course taught by Chris Kiely, professor of materials science and engineering. Kiely directs the nanocharacterization lab in Lehigh’s new Center for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology (CAMN).
"The course was very useful to me," Fullerton says. "In fact, I have used several concepts I learned in class during presentations on my research – mostly dealing with how and why certain material properties are functions of nanoscale size and shape.
"I also gained a broad overview of the history of nanotechnology, along with previous and current research areas and techniques. This has made it much easier to answer nanotechnology questions and communicate with other scientists in the field."
The virtual classroom
Because nanotechnology is such a new field, no textbooks adequately cover the subjects that Kiely wanted to include in his "Materials for Nanotechnology" course. Kiely solved this problem by poring over literature in the field, taking notes and borrowing illustrations from articles and reviews published recently in technical journals.
With help from his wife, Carol, a materials scientist and science journalist, Kiely assembled the information for each class into a Microsoft Publisher presentation. Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, several hours before the start of class, he uploaded the presentation to the Web so that his students could print it out and bring it to class.
The Penn State students especially found it helpful to follow the presentation while watching Kiely teach.
"While we could basically see the lectures," says Fullerton, "it was important to print them from the Web site before class in order to understand all the details clearly."
Kiely began Lecture 25 of his class, "Semiconductor Nanoparticles," as he had the previous two dozen lectures. Standing in front of the web-based classroom in the materials science and engineering department in Whitaker Laboratory, he hooked a small microphone to his shirt. The flick of a switch lit up two large screens on the wall behind him, and the same two screens on the wall facing him from the back of the class. One screen showed the Penn State students seated in their distant classroom. The other displayed his power-point presentation on a SMART Board interactive whiteboard.
"Can you hear me there, Penn State?" Kiely asked.
The professor proceeded to describe six methods of preparing semiconductor nanoparticles, from cluster compounds to pyrolytic synthesis, "scrolling" from one page to the next with a touch of his finger to the SMART Board. From time to time, he stepped on a floor pad to change the position of the camera and give the Penn State students different views of the class.
"It’s important for students to see the SMART Board," Kiely says, "but I’ve learned they lose the sense of interaction if they don’t occasionally see me or the Lehigh students."
At Penn State, students see Kiely and the SMART Board behind him. They can converse with the professor and the Lehigh students. In one hour, Kiely took his students on a virtual tour of recent discoveries and advances in semiconductor nanoparticles, magnified and in vibrant color.
Last spring was the second semester in which classes were offered through the materials science and engineering department’s Web-based classroom. Last fall, Martin Harmer, the Alcoa Foundation Professor of materials science and engineering and CAMN director, taught a class on the sintering of ceramics to students at Lehigh, Penn State, Penn and the Hershey Medical Center. And a professor from Penn State taught a class on biomaterials that was offered to students at Lehigh.
The Web-based education programs in the materials science and engineering department and the CAMN are directed at Lehigh by Andrea Harmer.
"Because of this classroom, we can give lecture courses on our pet topics," Kiely says. "Only four or five students here might sign up, but if we can get the same number of students from three or four other universities, that makes it all the more worthwhile."