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 engineering scaling 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 micro-technology 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 micro-technology.”

After realizing the lack of engineering scaling 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 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 course outlines that incorporated devices for demonstration and testing. When Thomas and Tran joined the project, they determined the concepts that could be taught with each device and consulted fellow students to gauge how information should best be presented. After this, they created lectures for each of the concepts. The lectures 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 microchips are 3 mm by 6 mm (for comparison, a penny is roughly 19 mm in diameter). Students will be able to view them under a microscope and manipulate them using computer software developed by Texas Tech University.

The new 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 completed and the microchips ready for distribution by December 2015.

The Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Utah is committed to providing students with broad-based, rigorous and progressive education. By combining state-of-the-art facilities with renowned faculty, the department provides an education that gives students the necessary skills to become the next generation of innovators.