NOTE: This column first appeared in the Aug. 6 edition of the Daily Herald Business Ledger
There’s been some big things happening in the suburbs regarding a technology with a very, very small focus.
A new partnership forged in the northern suburbs by local government, business and education groups will bring a nanotechnology education program to college and high school students in the area. The Nanotechnology Employment, Education, and Economic Development Initiative — or NE3I for short — is comprised of the village of Skokie, Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, the Illinois Science + Technology Park in Skokie and NSERVE, a consortium of nine local high schools representing approximately 24,000 students.
Nanotechnology is development of things that are no larger than one billionth of a meter in size.
At first devoted to computer processors, the technology has expanded into every day applications, from medicine delivery systems to the stuff that keeps stains from settling on your clothes and carpets. The industry’s fast growth has already resulted in a shortage of skilled workers, and it’s been projected that up to 6 million new nanotech jobs will be created by 2020,
Oakton will be the focal point for the NE3I program, according to Bob Sompolski, Oakton’s dean of mathematics and technologies. The program will utilize Internet conference technology and a hands-on laboratory that will allow classes to be taught remotely as well as in a lab setting.
Last month, the initiative chose the Nanoscience Education Program from Skokie-based NanoProfessor to be cornerstone of the initiative.
The NanoProfessor program includes a textbook written by nanotechnology experts and covering the topics of nanotechnology basics, nanophysics, nanochemistry, nanobiology, and environmental, health, and safety perspectives on nanotechnology.
In addition, the company provides equipment, including its NanoInk NLP 2000 Desktop NanoFabrication System, to create the hands-on lab environment.
Sompolski said the goal is to create a curriculum that provides a full lab experience, as well as link teachers and students to the lab remotely from a classroom.
“It provides us the opportunity for the faculty to have the lecture on nanotech at a high school with support at the lab,” Sompolski said. “Then once every two weeks they can hop a bus to the lab to get their hands-on training.”
“We get the opportunity to introduce real-time nano experiments into not only the high school classrooms but also Oakton,” he added. “We’re using Internet resources to distribute the classes remotely. But on the other hand, on the nano level, nobody is using the naked eye. All input and output is too small to see. What you see remotely is the same computer image you see in the lab.”
The lab will be located at the Illinois Science + Technology Park in Skokie, a few blocks from Oakton’s satellite campus and where NanoProfessor’s facilities are located.
It’s no coincidence that the lab will be located at a site that already has a number of related industries next door.
In addition to having experts available to help the NE3I program get off the ground, it’s also a great opportunity for NanoProfessor to continue to test and improve its education curriculum, according to Dean Hart, Chief Commercial Officer at NanoInk, the parent company of NanoProfessor.
“I’m excited to have this program in our backyard to test our product,” Hart said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for nanotechnology to move it more from research to commercialization.”
Sompolski noted the collaboration and support from the government, businesses is important in the success of the initiative.
“We are not a research facility like the major colleges around here,’ he said.
“So if we can get people with the interest, credentials and ability to work with us, we don’t have to devote as many resources.”
And that, he adds, benefits the college and area high schools that want to provide the training and skills, but do not have the funding to develop their own program.
“With this, the high schools can bypass the need to purchase very expensive equipment and have the opportunity to expose nanotechnology to their students,” Sompolski said.
The program is just beginning to gear up with the goal is to have it ready for Oakton students by Spring 2013. Sompolski said it will likely start as a career certificate program, combining a number of classes with internship opportunities.
“We are looking to develop it into technician level position, providing entry to intermediate level skills, with goal to eventually move to AAS degree,” he added.
Once the college course is in place, Sompolski said, they plan to expand it to the high school level, which will be offered to the NSERVE group of districts that feed into Oakton.
Oakton obtained the startup funding through a $250,000 grant from the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust, and that grant was matched by the village of Skokie using funds from the village’s Downtown Science + Technology Park Tax Increment Finance district.
Hart noted that the collaboration between government, education and business to get NE3I off the ground will likely be the way of the future as cash-strapped educational institutions seek to bring nanotechnology education to their students.
“Municipalities like Skokie, the state, the country and the world are starting to see and understand that this is the next big thing,” Hart said. “It just speaks to what is going on in the world of nanotechnology.”