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Developing Innovative Tools to Educate Future Nanoscientists
Developing Innovative Tools to Educate Future Nanoscientists

The Portland State University Foundation recently received a $300,000 grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation to support the development of an online electron microscopy platform (OEMP) that will promote undergraduate nanoscience education at PSU and beyond.

According to Zhiqiang (Tony) Chen, the project’s principal investigator, research associate professor and laboratory manager at PSU’s Center for Electron Microscopy and Nanofabrication (CEMN), the OEMP will dramatically improve the training and education of undergraduate students in the theory and practice of electron microscopy. PSU professors Jun Jiao (Mechanical and Materials Engineering and Physics) and Richard Hugo (Geology), graduate student Minh Vu, and undergraduate student Devon Butler join Chen on the development team. The award is the result of a pilot Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM) simulator developed under Chen’s guidance by graduate students Gabriel Eng and Bin Gao and undergraduate student Matthew Davis.

This project will help address a projected nationwide shortage of nanoscience engineers and scientists. The National Science Foundation estimates that by the year 2020 there could be as many as two million new nanoscience jobs on the market. There are, however, substantial challenges in developing the nanoscience workforce, chief among them the limited opportunities for training on the critical tools of nanoscience and nanotechnology: electron microscopes.

Because microscopes like those housed at the CEMN and the Collaborative Life Sciences Building are in high demand from university faculty, graduate students, and industry partners, the microscopes are not widely available to undergraduates. Space in many facilities like the CEMN is also limited, making it difficult to train more than a few students at a time. Furthermore, training is intensive, entailing at least sixteen hours to cover basic operation and then regular practice to develop, hone, and retain skills.

The OEMP will circumvent these challenges by providing undergraduate students resources enabling training and practice anywhere with an Internet connection and by providing hands-on lessons that connect theory to practice.
“Think of it like training on a flight simulator for pilots,” Chen said, using a keyboard and mouse to manipulate the controls of a prototype virtual TEM he had brought up on a computer screen. “Only, we plan to provide the technology and educational materials to train future scientists and engineers.”

With a fleet of state-of-the-art microscopes, a vast network of public and private partnerships, a long history of training, community outreach, youth education programs, and experienced faculty and staff such as Drs. Jiao and Chen, Portland State University’s CEMN is well suited to build, grow, and maintain the online electron microscopy training platform.

In this first phase of the project, Chen and his team are bringing in a software engineer to complete the virtual TEM, as well as a suite of interactive training modules, which will link microscope practice to theoretical principles. Once complete, the online electron microscopy education platform will become an integral part of the CEMN facility. In the future, Chen intends to virtualize each of CEMN’s advanced instruments so that students at PSU, as well as students at universities around the world where there is either limited or no access to these tools, can train on a complete range of electron microscopes with a variety of sample materials while accessing educational tutorials to guide their learning.

In short time, the online electron microscopy platform will take its place among the many other tools and programs at PSU that support the training and education of the STEM workforce of tomorrow.

By Shaun McGillis, Research & Strategic Partnerships