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NMSU team to lead state nanoscience undergraduate education initiative

Faculty members from New Mexico State University have been awarded a $174,777 grant intended to support development of a statewide network of faculty at research universities and community colleges that will work to integrate nanoscience into undergraduate biology and physics courses. The award is provided by the National Science Foundation through the Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement Program.

The team of New Mexico State University faculty members leading the statewide nanoscience undergraduate education initiative include, from left, professors Jacob Urquidi, Elba Serrano, Vicente Lombraņa and Boris Kiefer. (NMSU photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

A team of three New Mexico State University biology and physics professors and a biology professor from NMSU-Alamogordo is spearheading the project, the New Mexico Nanoscience Education Initiative (NMNEI).

They plan to collaborate with faculty at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Northern New Mexico College, Dine College and the University of New Mexico in a series of workshops as the statewide network is formed. Participants will develop course materials that weave nanoscience into the curriculum and help students to integrate knowledge from different scientific fields, like biology and physics.

The NMSU team will lead the organization and coordination of the workshops and development and distribution of the course materials that are developed.

"Most importantly, this is to prepare our students for the 21st century," said team member Boris Kiefer, physics professor at NMSU. "Breaking down boundaries between traditionally different scientific units, in this particular case biology and physics, will help them to be more competitive in high-tech jobs."

Physics professor Jacob Urquidi, another member of the team, said while science often is compartmentalized into the different disciplines, one must step back to understand the overall processes at work when considering important questions in science. The project will be a good chance to develop ways to help undergraduates use such an approach.

Team member Vicente Lombraņa, a biology professor at NMSU-Alamogordo, added that at community colleges, too, students usually think in terms of separate departments. Bridging the gap between departments can help lead students to more interdisciplinary opportunities.

The study of nanoscience is one way to create such a bridge between science departments.

"Nanoscience isn't included in many undergraduate textbooks," said Elba Serrano, professor of biology at NMSU and principal investigator for the project. But an understanding of nanoscience is critical for students who wish to be competitive for high-tech jobs after graduation, she said. The team plans to look at nanoscience education within three themes: health, water and energy. Serrano said the themes should help interest more students in the sciences.

Already, some of the professors are deciding how to incorporate the study of nanoscience into their curriculum.

"I am thinking about having modules that highlight certain developments in nanotechnology and nanobiotechnology," Kiefer said, "and how to relate concepts in biology, say, on a systems level as well as an atomic level, or a physical level and try to make the connections between these two ways of thinking more transparent to the students so they can more easily move in each field, as well as among different fields."

Serrano plans to offer an Honors College class (HON 115-01) for entering freshmen in the fall - The Art of Scientific Discovery. Within that will be a lab - Exploring the Invisible: Measurement at the Nanoscale - which will be developed as a module that other faculty can access online and use in their own classes.

Other ways of incorporating nanoscience will come from ideas developed by participants at workshops this summer. Serrano said the project will bring faculty from community colleges and four-year institutions across the state together in an equal partnership to discuss how they will educate students.

"The strategies will arise as we meet and as we talk," Serrano said. The process also will focus on outcomes, Serrano said, so "as faculty develop what they're going to be doing in the classes, they'll simultaneously be thinking about ways to assess what the students are learning." Course materials developed by the network will be available online to faculty members at other institutions. There also are plans to offer a series of lectures that will include presentations by researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Center for Integrated Nanotechnology.

"Because this is a network grant, the shape this will take will vary by campus," Serrano said, but faculty members who wish to use the coursework will be able to tailor it to their needs.

As the network grows and becomes established among New Mexico universities and community colleges, Serrano hopes to see it expand beyond the state into a nationwide network.

"This came out of our interactions and our conversations and, frankly, our frustrations with our inability to teach and do research in a way that we think is consistent with 21st century interdisciplinary scientific approaches," Serrano said. "The structure of institutions makes it difficult for faculty to collaborate across departments and colleges. So this is a project that was spawned out of shared intellectual interests and a desire to transform the academic experiences of faculty and students."

The workshops and network will create opportunities for focusing on some of the challenges faced by faculty working in different settings across the state. The workshops also will be a chance for conversations about what can be done to address the lack of physics classes at some community colleges.

Serrano said the project also is intended to motivate undergraduate students to pursue internship opportunities in nanoscience at government research facilities such as Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory.

The first workshop will be held in July and will be hosted by the NMSU Honors College. More information about the New Mexico Nanoscience Education Initiative can be found at the project Web site: http://physics.nmsu.edu/~jurquidi/nmnei/nmnei.html.