Some day online tutorials and downloads of lectures and seminars may become the norm for professors, students, and others involved in teaching, learning, and doing research on college campuses. Thanks to an initiative of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and researchers at places like the Beckman Institute, that future is now when it comes to the area of nanotechnology.
Five years ago, the NSF funded an initiative that created a network of universities to further the development of nanotechnology from theory to the manufacturing process. The University of Illinois and the Beckman Institute were an integral part of this effort from the start, and continue to be as the project was recently renewed for another five years. The Network for Computational Nanotechnology (NCN) at Illinois is led by Narayana Aluru, Co-chair of the Molecular and Electronic Nanostructures at Beckman, and Institute colleagues Umberto Ravaioli and Eric Jakobsson.
A separate but important component of the NCN effort is an educational outreach initiative called nanoHUB, which is described on the project's Web site as "a web-based resource for research, education, and collaboration in nanotechnology."
At nanoHUB.org anyone from high school students to highly-decorated academic researchers to industry scientists can go online and find tutorials, simulation software, and a number of other resources related to nanotechnology, as well as add to the general knowledge in this emerging area.
"We want this to be the place for computational nanotechnology," Aluru said. "Anyone who wants to know anything about nanotechnology should be able to find it at nanoHUB."
Aluru, who is a professor of Mechanical Science and Engineering whose research centers on micro- and nanoelectromechanical systems (MEMS and NEMS), is the principal investigator for NCN at Illinois. He is one of many Beckman researchers who have contributed to or are still contributing to nanoHUB, which is based at Purdue University under Director Mark Lundstrom.
Along with the researchers, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the U of I helps provide processing power for the "cyber-infrastructure" at nanoHUB that is used in the large scale computer simulations available at the site.
"On paper I'm the PI, but we're all very active and we do things together," Aluru said of the local effort. "Illinois is a partner and we hope we will be a partner for a very, very long time but things change, it's very dynamic. We are continuously looking to engage new faculty as part of the NCN at Illinois effort."
Aluru said the goal is to upload the research, tools, and educational components coming out of NCN at Illinois onto nanoHUB.org so a wide variety of users can benefit.
"We would like to see the research and all the educational tools that come out of NCN at Illinois go on the nanoHUB," Aluru said. "The nanoHUB is a cyber-infrastructure portal which supports the tools for anyone who wants to do nano simulations. A few programs that we have developed are on the nanoHUB, but a number of programs developed by Purdue and other universities are also available on the nanoHUB. In addition, students and researchers can also find interesting seminars on NEMS, nano-bio and nanotechnology."
Aluru said the educational seminars and tutorials available at nanoHUB can run the gamut from the basic introductory level to advanced, and are available to students, researchers in industry, and teachers in classes such as chemistry who may not think of nanotechnology as a subject relevant to their particular field.
"We are developing educational tools to engage high school students, college students, education at all levels," he said. "You'll find some learning modules there, for example, on how to use a virtual simulation tool.
"The good thing is we are trying to engage more people on our campus and find instructors who are willing to use nanoHUB for the classes they teach. I think they'll find resources to present their material in a very novel way."
At nanoHUB.org, users set up an account and then are able to take advantage of any of the four features offered at the site: simulation, contribution, research, and teaching and learning. The simulation tools are grouped into three areas: nanoelectronics, NEMS/nanofluidics, and nano-bioelectronics, or Nano-bio. Aluru said Illinois has the rare distinction of making contributions in all three areas.
"Illinois has taken a leadership role in the Nano-bio research thrust, led by Karl Hess initially, and now by Eric Jakobsson," he said. "The NEMS (effort) has been led by me in the past and now I'm co-leading. In Nanoelectronics, the simulation tools that have been developed at Beckman, for example Umberto's MOCA program, are being imported into NanoHUB. Having this at Beckman puts us in the forefront of what's important now."
Aluru said the five-year nanoHUB project has been a success so far.
"It has been extremely successful when we measure the number of users. I think it's been doubling every year and they hope to have 100,000 users in the next few years," he said.
Aluru stressed that the information that can be gained from nanoHUB is relevant to all kinds of researchers.
"We have a lot of users from industry; if people from industry want to try out a concept they can go there and with a simulation quickly see how a device functions," he said. "And as there are more teachers who use these resources, the more they are easily accessible to students."
The leadership role taken by Illinois in this initiative will continue with a conference and summer school session set for this summer on the U of I campus.
As if proof were needed that even accomplished researchers can gain new insights from nanoHUB, Aluru is planning on attending the summer school sessions.
"Absolutely. You're never too old to learn anything new and you're never too experienced to learn," he said.