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NUE UNIQUE puts scanning probe microscopes in hands of undergraduates

Since the introduction of scanning probe microscopy in 1981, the technique has dazzled scientists around the world by providing new ways to view and manipulate objects at the nanoscale level.

A group of 16 undergraduates from UW and other universities nationwide had opportunities in June to use a variety of scanning probe microscopes as part of NUE UNIQUE's "Nanoscience on the Tip,” a five-day series of workshops that introduced participants to one of science’s most exciting new tools.

Now in its second year, NUE UNIQUE (Using Nanoscience Instrumentation for Quality Undergraduate Education), is a collaborative effort between educational institutions and equipment manufacturers that puts scanning probe microscopes in the hands of small groups of undergraduates.

The cutting-edge equipment is leased from manufacturers for short periods of time to participating educational institutions for use at the UW-based program, giving students access to tools usually only available in leading research laboratories.

“By involving instrument manufacturers and by inviting students to participate from all over the country, NUE UNIQUE is working on a new paradigm of leasing the equipment instead of purchasing it,” said René Overney, UW professor of chemical engineering and program director.

Overney said the goal of the program is to develop a “nationally replicable model of a sustainable and up-to-date undergraduate teaching laboratory of scanning probe methods applied to nanosciences.”

“Engineering has shifted in many areas away from large scale ‘bulk’ processes to much more sophisticated and refined processes that involve interfaces and small dimensions,” Overney said. “It is imperative to put undergraduate students in direct contact with molecular engineering principles and nanotechnology.”

Four laboratory modules introduced the students to topics such as surface interactions, capillary forces, thermal transition, electronic properties and reaction kinetics. The students worked in small groups of four. Each of the groups was guided by a teaching assistant.

Jason Killgore, a UW doctoral student in chemical engineering who worked as one of the teaching assistants, said the students picked up using the sophisticated devices pretty quickly. “Some of the delicate, hands-on tasks like changing probe tips were challenging,” Killgore said. “However, the familiar Windows-based graphical user interface made instrument operation very intuitive.”

“Hopefully next year we will continue to develop more lab modules that challenge and excite students from diverse academic backgrounds,” Killgore said.

Marissa Hackett, a UW junior majoring in bioengineering, said the basic principles of scanning probe microscopy were easy for her to learn. “The only thing difficult about the microscopes was how precise you had to be to get them to function properly,” Hackett said.

Kristine Smith, a junior majoring in chemistry at Whitman College, said she might not have had the chance to use such specialized tools at her small school. “It was really great to be able to use the classroom version of equipment that is used in booming research fields today,” Smith said.

Smith said her favorite part of the program was being able to see biological systems on inorganic surfaces. “I really enjoyed the workshop where we looked at fibrinogen on graphite surfaces,” she said.

Sam Schoeller, a student at North Seattle Community College (NSCC), enjoyed the same workshop. “While the courses in nanotechnology I took at NSCC gave me a theoretical knowledge of scanning probe microscopy, NUE UNIQUE allowed me to use this knowledge in a real setting,” “It was hands-on science, and for that I am grateful,” said Schoeller, who plans to transfer to UW soon to study electrical engineering.

Amy Freez, a chemical engineering student from the University of Alabama, said that the program was an "invaluable preparation tool" for starting her research this fall.

What’s in store for next year? “There is always something to be learned from the workshops,” Overney said. “We have planned two new modules, one on molecular dynamics in complex organic systems and the other one on nano-indentation mechanics.”

The National Science Foundation (NSF) helped fund the annual workshop, now in its second year. Partners included NSCC, UW-GEMSEC and equipment manufacturers Nanosurf AG and nanoScience Instruments.

NSF’s direct support for NUE UNIQUE will end next year, so Overney is looking into models on how to finance this program in the future. He said other instrument manufacturers are interested in participating next year, and other universities are increasingly aware of the workshop model.

When workshop participant and University of Alabama student Daniel Sweat returned to his school this summer and shared the knowledge he gained with one of his professors, the professor e-mailed Overney a thank you note that said “I am impressed with your program and appreciative of your instruction. It is clear that he [Daniel] learned a lot and that the workshop broadened his horizon.”