Should More Universities Teach Nanotechnology?
The UK education system is traditionally one that focuses on the core principles of science and doesn’t really touch on the applied sciences until the undergraduate level. Here we look at nanotechnology in the UK education system and where more could be done to make people more interested in nanotechnology.
It all starts at school
Whilst we’re focusing on universities, if teenagers in school and college are not aware of what nanotechnology is, and what its future implications are, then less students are going to be interested in it. When I was at school, the syllabus hardly even touched on any real-world applications, let alone those in the nanotechnology space. The focus of pre-university education is focused on the fundamental principles of science, and whilst this is important, it is always useful for students to see what impact in the real-world those principles have.
I know since I left school eleven years ago, nanotechnology has significantly grown in that time and the syllabus has incorporated some of the well-know materials such as graphene, carbon nanotubes and fullerenes, as well as the odd principle. However, with nanotechnology being one of the most innovative and expansive areas of science today, it is an area that should be introduced to more students at an earlier age; otherwise how are they going to know how and why to get into the field?
It doesn’t get much better at college level, because again, these courses focus on the core areas of chemistry, physics and biology, with little to no emphasis on how these fields can be applied to the nanotechnology sector. This is a critical time for many students, as this is when they decide what they want to do in their future careers. It is at this point, that we as people within the nanotech community, should be directing the next generation towards nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology at the undergraduate level
I would love to say that the coverage of nanotechnology gets better at the undergraduate level in the UK, but it doesn’t. In the UK, nanotechnology is offered in a combined BSc or MSci degree) with either physics, chemistry or electrical engineering. However, this is only available at less than 10 universities (out of around 130 or so).
Considering the amount of nanotechnology, or nanotechnology crossover, research that goes on in most UK universities, you would think that more people would be trying to teach our undergraduates about the principles of nanotechnology. I’m not saying that there needs to be a stand-alone nanotechnology degree, but more universities should offer the integrated approach where the basic principles of chemistry, physics or engineering are applied to nanotechnology applications.
Whilst some courses may touch on nanotechnology, it is not enough to steer students in the direction of nanotechnology and many have to find out about it for themselves. I was one of the lucky ones (in my opinion) who took the 4-year chemistry with nanotechnology integrated master’s degree. Not only did I gain all the fundamental knowledge of chemistry and the chemical principles that underlie most nanotechnology applications, but it also gave me a much wider scope of the world of nanotechnology than if I had done a pure chemistry degree.
To give an idea of the impact the early years knowledge has on undergraduates, there was only 13 in my final year who took the nanotechnology option. In terms of the number of chemists, physicists and engineers coming out of university, this is a small portion. Whilst many go on from the core sciences to study a postgraduate degree in a nanotechnology field, it can be a steeper learning curve to learn the fundamentals of nanotechnology. Additionally, many people who take this route only know the specific area of nanotechnology that they are trained in, and not a wider scope of nanotechnology. In comparison, people who have spent their undergraduate degree getting to know the different areas of nanotechnology are more likely to know the whole field in much more depth (although this is generalising, as there are exceptions to the rule).
More needs to be done to not only get people interested in the field at an earlier age, but to give people a wider understanding of the world of nanotechnology. That is where the system is faltering, and needs to be rectified, especially with the state of unknown coming with Brexit.
Written by Liam Critchley.