April 21, 2004 — Timo Hofmann, 23, had never heard of nanotechnology until his last year of gymnasium, Germany’s equivalent to high school. His nanorevelation came when he attended a Saturday afternoon public lecture on semiconductor lasers held at the University of Wuerzburg in October 2000.
“It was very impressive for me to learn about these nanotechnologies,” he said. “So I decided to take the challenge.”
Hofmann is now a member of Wuerzburg University’s first class in nanotech. He expects to finish his studies in mid-2005 with a diploma of engineering in “Nanostrukturtechnik.” Hofmann is among thousands of European students being trained as nanotechnologists of the future.
This is likely music to the ears of European industry, which has a hunger for well-trained professionals. According to Frank Menzel, director of research and development, technical service, at a German chemical group Degussa, finding well-trained personnel is one of the biggest challenges facing corporations working with small tech. “It would be nice to have perfectly trained people on the job market, but that is just a wish,” he said.
European nanotech degrees come in a range of sizes and formulas. Physics professor Alfred Forchel launched the degree program at Wuerzburg University to regain students’ interest in all things science-related and to better respond to the needs of the economy. “There is no point spending time trying to understand things that aren’t interesting to anyone,” he said. “Education should teach students to work on things that interest industry and society.”
The first two years of the Wuerzburg degree focus on traditional physics and science courses. The curriculum begins to be more nanotech-intensive by the third year, incorporating classes with names such as “From Molecules to Materials” and “Nanoanalytics.” To make sure graduates are ready to face the realities of the business world, students must take a mandatory economics course and partake in a six-week internship.
Training eco-savvy nanotech specialists is the goal of a recently created masters degree program in Italy. The International Master in Nanotechnologies is a joint-degree program between University of Padova and University of Ca Foscari of Venice.
“Our goal is to craft the next generation of managers to become R&D directors, entrepreneurs, etc…,” said Pietro Busnardo, the program’s scientific director. Coursework for the one-year degree is both scientific and managerial.
The first class of 13 or so students began studies in January and will graduate in December. Students come from Italy, Argentina, and Poland, but the language of instruction is English. They alternate between science classes such as “Fundamentals of Material Science” and “Processing Nanopowders,” with more business-minded subjects like “Intellectual Property in Nanotechnology” and “Startup Corporate Finance.”
It’s hoped the mix will create a Renaissance man or woman of a different kind, someone who will have one foot in the lab and another in the boardroom. To make sure content stays in tune with demands of the business world, courses are not only taught by university professors, but also by working professionals such as venture capitalists and patent attorneys. The emphasis is on marketability at all times.
Some universities elsewhere in Europe are choosing to reform existing programs rather than launching new degrees from scratch. At the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, students graduate with degrees in physics, engineering and chemistry, but they are in fact being trained as nanotechnologists, according to Associate Professor Vincent Bayot.
“There is a lot of inertia when it comes to diploma names and other titles,” he said. “But courses in material science and electrical engineering allow you to specialize in nanotechnology, nanofabrication and nanoelectronics.”
By the fourth or fifth year of study, 50 percent of electrical engineering students take the university’s nanofabrication course. The option helps generate a multidiscipline culture, bringing together students from different academic departments.
“We like to put the electrical engineers and the materials people together,” Bayot said. “At the beginning there is a lot of incomprehension because they are unfamiliar with each other’s specialties, but it helps to create the common culture needed for nanotechnology development.”
The University of Louvain plans to create an official Masters in Nanosciences and Nanotechnology by 2007, but until then, fitting nanotech elements into the more traditional degree has been successful.
Bayot argues that the future success of such degrees depends on the ability of small tech specialists to better communicate with the public — especially children and teenagers.
“Most of my students don’t know anything about nanotechnology when they begin their studies,” he said. “And my kids, who are in their teens, only recently figured out what I was doing at work.”