Developing Team-Teaching Strategies for a New Nanotechnology Course

Developing Team-Teaching Strategies for a New Nanotechnology Course


Mel I. Mendelson

CTE Faculty Development Grant, 2003-04

I. Introduction

Nanotechnology involves constructing new materials and devices at the molecular level - which is the hottest high-tech area for graduate-level research in the U.S. From the author's research, there are no undergraduate courses at the sophomore-level taught in nanotechnology at U.S. universities. Possibly, this is because universities must integrate 4-6 different science and engineering disciplines in order to teach it. Consequently, there is no infrastructure for doing this, and there are no university models to follow. Furthermore, there are no undergraduate textbooks in nanotechnology.

The overall goal of this CTE grant was to promote effective learning in a course that was team-taught by sever different disciplines (biology, chemistry, physics, materials science, electrical and mechanical engineering, and ethics). Our objective was to develop pedagogical strategies for team-teaching nanotechnology to sophomores majoring in science and engineering.

The purpose of this report is to summarize the accomplishments from our CTE grant on developing teaching strategies for our new course entitled, ENGR 398: Introduction to Nanotechnology, which was taught in the Spring 2004 semester.

II. Approach

Our approach to accomplish our goal and objective was four-fold:

  1. Develop a common theme and central philosophy throughout the course
  2. Design of the course goals, learning objectives and outcomes
  3. Overlap the seven disciplines and teach concurrently
  4. Form student teams for a class project.

III. Results and Discussion

During the Summer and Fall of 2003, our new course entitled, Introduction to Nanotechnology, was planned. In addition, the teaching strategies for our course were established through weekly meetings with our faculty team: Gary Kuleck (Biology), Jeff Sanny and John Bulman (Physics), James Roe (Chemistry), Mel Mendelson (Materials Science), Nazmul Ula (Electrical Engineering), R. Noorani (Mechanical Engineering), and John Stupar (Ethics, UC Irvine). The results in establishing our teaching strategies are discussed below.

A. Developing common theme and central philosophy

The theme established a common thread that would be woven throughout the course. This was necessary in order to integrate the seven disciplines. The theme we established was: "examining the effect of nanotechnology on the human body now and in the year 2020."

Concurrently, a central philosophy described the perspective that would be used with the theme in our lectures. The central philosophy we adopted was: "relating the macroscopic world (as seen by the naked eye) to the microscopic world (as seen under an optical microscope) to the nano-scopic world (as seen under an electron microscope)."

B. Design of course goal, learning objectives and outcomes

In order to write the syllabus and assess the course, we had to establish the course goal, learning objectives and outcomes. After many iterations, Figure 2 shows a diagram of our inputs (goal and learning objectives) and our outputs (course outcomes).

Course Goal

Descriptive view of how nanotechnology will affect the human body

Outcomes (Outputs)

  1. Comprehend newspapers, magazines, trade journals.
  2. Be conversant in the language of nanotechnology.
  3. Understand its potential bio-applications.

Learning Objectives

  1. Apply nanoscience basics for improving 'quality of life'.
  2. Evaluate effects of nanotech on society.
  3. Design, build biosensor.

Classroom Environment

Course Goal

Descriptive view of how nanotechnology will affect the human body

Outcomes (Outputs)

  1. Comprehend newspapers, magazines, trade journals.
  2. Be conversant in the language of nanotechnology.
  3. Understand its potential bio-applications.

Learning Objectives

  1. Apply nanoscience basics for improving 'quality of life'.
  2. Evaluate effects of nanotech on society.
  3. Design, build biosensor.

Classroom Environment

Figure 1. Design of course goal, learning objectives and course outcomes.

C. Overlapping disciplines and concurrent teaching

Since nanotechnology is multi-disciplinary, no one instructor was totally familiar with all of the topics. In order to bridge the gaps from one discipline to another (e.g., chemistry to physics) three methods were used:

  1. Overlapping the topics in one discipline with that of another.
  2. Simultaneous (concurrent) teaching.
  3. Having a facilitator integrate the topics.

Overlapping the topics focused on a particular biological application (i.e., microarrays, microfluidics and nano-materials), as shown in Figure 2, and discussed it using two disciplines. For example, in microfluidics and microarrays, quantum dots are used to tag (identify) diseased cells or molecules. The biochemistry of tagging cells and the physics of quantum dots were discussed for these applications. Overlapping the disciplines provided a transition from one discipline to another.

Concurrent teaching was used when instructors from different disciplines discussed them from two different perspectives. For example, in the previous case involving quantum dots, the biology of how they could be used to detect cancer cell was discussed simultaneously with the physics of illumination from nano-sized quantum dots. Concurrent teaching was also used when we discussed the microfluidics of DNA separation and the potential toxicity of nano-materials.

It was decided that one instructor should be used as a facilitator in the course to integrate the topics from one discipline to another. The facilitator discussed the significance of each discipline and how it related to the previous discipline. In addition, the facilitator explained the weekly objective for each discipline, coordinated the class project and exam questions, and handled the grading.

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Materials
  • Science
  • Electrical
  • Engineering
  • Mechanical
  • Engineering
  • Applications:
    • Microarrays
    • Microfluidics
    • Nano-biomaterials
  • Ethics
  • Physics

Figure 2. Overlapping the seven disciplines with a focus on the applications.

D. Establishing interactive teaching

The architecture for the course established how the course would be designed by discipline and topic. This is shown in Figure 3. Briefly, an overview (the 'big picture') of the course was given at the start. Then each discipline was overlapped and presented in sequence. After this, the biological applications were covered in detail, and the course ended with ethics.

2. Biology Fundamentals

  • Organisms
  • Cells and genes

3. Chemistry Fundamentals

  • DNA, RNA, proteins
  • Molecules/cells manipulation

5. Materials Science

  • Microscopy
  • Material properties

7. Mechanical Design

  • Microarrays
  • Microfluidics

6. Electrical Design

  • Computer switches
  • Chip fabrication

8. Bio Applications

  • Present: micro/nanotech
  • Future: biotech/nanotech

1. Introduction

  • Benefits of nanotechnology
  • Bio-applications overview

4. Physics Fundamentals

  • Quantum mechanics
  • Energy bands & gaps

9. Ethics & Conclusions

  • Responsibilities
  • Social consequences

Figure 3. Course architecture and organization of topics.

Interactive teaching has been shown to improve learning in science and engineering [2]. Some of the teaching strategies that were developed for our course and used through out the semester were as follows:

  • Integrate the disciplines where possible when discussing key topics in class
  • Encourage the faculty to get out of their discipline (comfort zone)
  • Give many practical examples in biology to which the students can relate
  • Show relationships between the various topics
  • Provide dimensional scaling often (from macro- to micro- to nano-structures)
  • Use pictures and demonstrations to replace equations and 'hard-core' science
  • Make learning fun by having class exercises and group projects

Forming teams for a class project

Our class consisted of 29 students from the College of Science and Engineering. Two-thirds of the students (20) were biology majors and the remaining one-third (9) were a mixture of electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science majors. About 75% of the students were sophomores with the balance being juniors and a few seniors. Nine (9) teams were formed – seven teams of three students and two teams of four students.

The students were divided into multi-disciplinary teams by the faculty for the purpose of collaborating together. This has been proven to enhance student learning [2]. The teams were selected according to the students' response to survey questions. The criteria for selecting the student teams was based upon diversity, according to major, year in college, gender and ethnicity, and GPA. Each team had at least one engineering student on it; and the balance of each team comprised biology students.

The students were also organized into multi-disciplinary teams in order to work on their class project. The class project consisted of three parts: (1) analysis fluid flow inside a microfluidic channel, (2) design of a DNA sequencer, and (3) discussion of the ethics in a nanotechnology case study. Here the engineering and biology students had to interact to solve the class project.

E. Outcomes Assessment

Weekly fast-feedback questionnaires will be used to determine the students' progress in learning the course material [3]. These questionnaires enabled the instructors to make course improvements before the semester ended. The typical questions were: What are the most important things you learned this week? What topics are you having the most trouble learning? What single greatest improvement by the instructors will improve your learning?

After the course has been completed, our teaching strategies will be assessed through 6 questions from our learning objectives and outcomes (see Figure 1). The course: (1) enabled you to comprehend nanotechnology articles in newspapers, magazines and trades journals, (2) prepared you to be conversant in the interdisciplinary language of nanotechnology, (3) enlightened you on the potential bio-applications, (4) applied the nano-science basics for improving the 'quality of life,' (5) enabled you to analyze the ethical effects of nanotechnology on society, (6) enabled you to design a m-biosensor on a chip for detecting DNA species. On a 1 - 5 scale (5 = strongly agree, 4 = agree, 3 = neutral, 2 = disagree, 1 = strongly disagree), the scores will be calculated for each question. An average score of ≥ 3.5 for each question will be taken as our standard for meeting the learning objectives and outcomes. If the average is < 3.5, we will take corrective action to improve our course. These results were not available for this report.

F. Dissemination

The results of our nanotechnology teaching strategies will be disseminated by: (1) presenting a seminar for the LMU faculty at the Center for Teaching Excellence, which took place April 15, 2004, (2) presenting papers at the 2004 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) [3] and the 2004 International Conference on Engineering Education and Research (ICEER) [4].

VI. Conclusions

A new course entitled, Introduction to Nanotechnology was designed, developed and taught in the Spring 2004 semester using the teaching strategies developed from this CTE grant. The course was evaluated according to the learning objectives and outcomes that were established through our faculty collaboration (Figure 1). Unfortunately, the results of our course assessment were not available for this report.

V. References Cited

[1] R. Felder, J. Stice, National Institute for Effective Teaching, Workshop, Amer. Soc. for Engineering Education (ASEE), 1998.

[2] H. Beal, University of Chicago, School of Business, personal communication, 1994.

[3] M. Mendelson, G. Kuleck, J. Sanny, J. Bulman, J. Roe, N. Ula, R. Noorani, "Teaching and Evaluating a New Nanotechnology Undergraduate Course," 2004 ASEE Annual Conference, Salt Lake City, June 20-24, 2004.

[4] M. Mendelson, G. Kuleck, J. Sanny, J. Bulman, J. Roe, N. Ula, R. Noorani, "Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Teaching Nanotechnology," 2004 ICEER Conference, Bouzov Castle, Czech Republic, June 28-30, 2004.